November 7, 2011

Island Living: Have yourself a merry little Christmas – island-style


So the first Christmas my family spent on Hatteras Island was, for lack of a better word, a little weird.

I was a kid in Massachusetts when our family decided, somewhat spur of the moment, to head south to Hatteras for the holidays. We packed up the presents, the lights, the tinsel, and drove 14 hours to our little Avon beach house to have an island-style Christmas.

Now this was many years ago, and I don’t remember the entire adventure, but I will always have fond memories of our incredibly stupid Christmas tree.

To be honest, I don’t recall where we got the tree. Perhaps we had picked it up at Food Lion, which had just opened, or maybe we got it in a not-quite-legal way from the undeveloped portions of what is now Kinnakeet Shores. Regardless, we had a nice tree, and plenty of Christmas lights, and a couple boxes of environmentally-unfriendly tinsel.  What we had totally forgotten in our dash to pack and travel, however, was ornaments.

So what’s a family with a fabulous ill-gotten tree but no ornaments to do?

Well, being the intelligent clan that we are, we raided the silverware drawer, the cabinets, and the dishwasher, and decorated the entire thing with kitchen utensils.

It was sight to behold  to be sure -- with silver forks and spoons glittering under the little colored lights, heavy spatulas weighing down the sturdy branches, and the shiny colander “star” on top, tying the kitchen-contents theme all together. (What’s a Christmas without a colander after all?) We even made some paper ornaments to complement it, and also to fill in the gaps for when we had to remove the ornaments so we’d have something to eat with.

That first island Christmas was a little skimpy by traditional standards. We didn’t have snow, obviously, and no large presents, since they couldn’t really fit in the car, and we didn’t have a lot of huge holiday meals since our kitchenware was on decoration duty. 

But was it fun.

I remember getting up on Christmas Day and wandering down the beach in 75-degree weather --turns out this was unusual for December -- and thinking that it was the best way ever to spend Christmas morning. I also remember thinking that given the warm temperature, the water might still be warm enough to swim in, and being horribly, painfully wrong.

In fact, my favorite photos of Crist-mases past are those red-eyed shots of all of us barefoot and sandy, and grinning like idiots in front our ridiculous tree. I’ve shared these photos and this story with friends and loved ones ever since with pride, usually generating an awkward response of “Huh? You put forks on your Christmas tree, eh? Well, isn’t that nice,” followed by a polite smile and quick change of topic.

I share this story with you now, island lovers, to highlight the main point of this rambling reminiscing: Hatteras Island holidays are awesome.

Now 15 or 20 years later, our Hatteras holidays have become a bit more refined, with way fewer utensil ornaments and way more tacky flashing lights covering our home and disturbing the neighbors.

And unlike that initial year, where we were somewhere in between “tourons” (half tourist, half moron), and “locusts,” (half local, half tourist), and not necessarily familiar with the goings-on of the off-season, I can say with pride that I am definitely now a full-fledged locust at least, and actually know of and participate in some of the holiday happenings that the island has to offer. It also helps that we now have a new-fangled invention called the Internet, so you can find all of the local Christmas events online.

And is there a lot going on these days!

For one thing, you have the Hatteras Village Christmas Parade on Dec. 11, a fantastic annual event that is held rain or shine and is worthy of attending for the buckets of free candy thrown from the floats alone. (Warning #1: Do not stand next to me at the parade. I assure you that I will push and shove to get the most candy.)

But as if free candy wasn’t enough of a reason to attend, the parade is the perfect venue to get a little jolt of community spirit, because everyone is there, in full holiday regalia, with nautical and island themed floats, fire trucks, Coast Guard boats, regular boats, horses, those neat little mini-cars, and who knows what else, marching through the village with mile-wide grins and friendly waves. Seriously, it’s a perfect little portrait of what holiday community spirit is all about. (And, also, did I mention the free candy?)

Then there are the arts and craft fairs and local sales. Christmas shopping on the island is hard to beat, because unlike its online counterpart, you can browse and “ooh” and “aah” over the merchandise, shamelessly pick up items for yourself, while injecting a little Hatteras Island into all of your holiday presents.

After all, if you love beach-themed knick knacks and ornaments, chances are the majority of your friends and loved ones do too, and in the off-season many of the stores offer discounts or sales that make those January credit card statements slightly easier to handle.  Personally, everyone in my family gets an annual seashell or other beachy ornament, which, granted, is not as flashy as a fork or spoon, but is always well-received.

Now on to the food. In November and December, you’ll also find plenty of opportunities to help enhance that fashionable holiday gut. There’s a Breakfast with Santa event, potluck and church dinners, restaurant holiday specials and catering, and for the first time this year, a Community Fair at Cape Hatteras Secondary School in Buxton on Saturday, Nov. 19. 

Now, the majority of folks will attend this fair for the dozens of rides, games, booths, and family-centered fun that has been in the works for over a year. But fair-savvy folks like me will be attending for one reason and one reason only -- funnel cakes, and lots of them. Enough said. (Warning #2: Do not stand next to me in the funnel cake line. I will also push and shove to get the most funnel cakes.)

But to be honest, underneath the visions of candy and funnel cakes that dance in my head, Hatteras Island holidays are awesome for a bigger reason. Really, the best thing about an island holiday is not in fast food, shopping, presents, or any of the other fun events that we get to enjoy every weekend leading up to Christmas.

The best thing is that nondescript and vague little thing that my family found a small version of on our first trip here many years ago. It’s an odd feeling, but you know it when you have it. You smile more, and for no reason, you feel warm without the help of a belly full of funnel cakes, and you simply feel lucky and happy to be right where you are. 

And I suppose the best way to describe it is an inherent and deep-seated sense of community pride, joy, and generosity.

If you’re missing this somehow, or have no idea what on earth I’m talking about, there are even holiday happenings to help you get a dose of this feeling as well. Check out the dozens of holiday programs that are aimed at helping local families and friends have a great and well-deserved Christmas, such as the Angel Tree program, the Food Pantry drive, the local collection of Christmas ornaments for Irene victims, the Toys for Tots drive, the Cape Hatteras Electric Cooperative’s Operation Santa Claus, the collection of new coats, hats, and gloves sponsored by the Little Grove United Methodist Church, the Hands of Love “Sparkle Bags” project, the Really, Really Free Market, and probably a dozen other charitable projects that I haven’t even heard about yet.

And if this long list of local organizations who are stepping up to help their neighbors doesn’t make you feel a little of that community pride and joy, then there is clearly something wrong with you.

The fact alone that so many of our island community members are out there generating donations and fundraising and trying to make a difference, especially since we’re all still feeling the financial and lifestyle aftershocks of Hurricane Irene, is plain inspiring.  And, frankly, it’s the main reason why holidays here are so fantastic.

Hurricane or hardships be darned, local folks will still go out and give, march in a parade and smile, and host fabulous holiday events to spread a little of that neighborhood cheer.

We’re worlds away from our first island Christmas and our glorious utensil tree, but now that I think about it, the overlying theme is pretty much the same. Despite the licks we had earlier this year, you take what you have, and you make it fantastic, fun, joyful, and uniquely Hatteras Island.

And you know what? As a result of these amazing programs and events, I bet a number of us will remember this as “The Year We Had a Great Holiday, Despite Irene.”

And if you go out and make the most of it, and enjoy and take advantage of this hyper-community spirit, it will surely be one of those holidays that you reminisce about years later and think, “Man, that was an unusual Christmas… but, boy, was it fun.”

So go out and shop, and eat, and volunteer, or donate, or just have fun doing Christmasy things, and I assure you, you’ll make island holiday memories that you’ll treasure for years to come.

After all, as a direct result of our first skimpy island Christmas, I still hang a spatula on my Christmas tree every year.

(Joy Crist now celebrates her merry little Christmases in Avon – and on the rest of Hatteras Island.)

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