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Home » PEOPLE AND PLACES in ME » MAINE (all topics) » The Other Maine
A Snow Covered Madawaska
The Other Maine

Holiday Traditions

By Alex Seise | December 21, 2011

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Last October, about four months into our journey in the Other Maine, we noticed something quite peculiar taking place all over. Alongside garish Halloween ghouls, people were starting to hang Christmas baubles around their front yards.

A Roaring Fire Glows During the Decorating Frenzy

At first it wasn’t much; a handful of ornaments here, the occasional strand of lights there, a holiday wreath perched next to a sign beckoning trick-or-treaters.

But just hours after the costumed youth stepped back inside their homes to savor their sugary bounties, Santa Claus came to town.   Literally, in the case of Madawaska.

Driving down to our native New Jersey for Thanksgiving, we noticed a graying fat man in a sleigh perched high above the road in Madawaska’s Four Corners Park. It wasn’t a bewildered logger, and it certainly didn’t look like a rogue Tim Horton’s employee. Sure enough, it was Saint Nick himself.

But the reason for the early season in the Other Maine isn’t due to uncontainable exuberance. Rather, it’s a sensible, if forced, reaction to the chill of late autumn. In the Saint John Valley, November lows dip down well below freezing. Coupled with the possibility for ice and snow, it’s downright unpleasant to string up holiday decorations after Thanksgiving.

Snow Piles Up on Outdoor Decorations Early on in the Season

Being well-adapted to their environment, the Northern Mainers took this hardship by the horns, wrestled it to the ground and silently declared early decorations to be a clever, acceptable way to cope.

Winter holidays in Aroostook County are quite spectacular. The streets of many mill towns are industrial and unremarkable during the spring, summer and autumn. But during November, mysterious balls of evergreen sprigs held together by bows and strings of sparkling lights appear overnight.

Other towns along the Route 1 corridor deck the highway with colorful light sculptures. Shopkeepers and homeowners alike unite in a frenzy of red, green and gold, transforming windows into beautiful still-life creations.

Shopkeepers in the Other Maine have an especially critical reason for going all out. Captivated by potentially brutal weather, many residents opt to shop locally rather than risk a long drive downstate. But on the occasional fair weekend, exceptions are made.

Two weekends before Thanksgiving, David and I opted to visit Bangor to start our shopping. As we exited I-95 onto Stillwater Avenue, we were greeted by a terribly unfamiliar sight: traffic jams.

As it turned out, the Veterans Day weekend coincided with the Canadian holiday equivalent, Remembrance Day. Friends told us after the fact that many businesses close on the other side of the border in observance of the holiday while their American counterparts stay open. The result is a multinational shopping frenzy that rivals and often tops Black Friday.

Outdoor Sprigs and Bows Spruce Up the Chilly Landscape

As the days grow remarkably short, the holiday season waltzes closer with each encroaching sunset. Though the landscape is barren and gray in late October, most hold off on decorating inside their homes until after Thanksgiving. When they do, many choose colorful decor that amuses the eye and warms the spirit.

It makes perfect sense; compared with the bleak vistas outside, the decorations bring a much-needed burst of vibrancy that won’t be seen again until the spring thaw in April.

That doesn’t stop residents from hoping for change; last year, I overheard someone at the grocery store dreaming of a rather peculiar “green Christmas.” I couldn’t help but smile.

Though we haven’t spent a Christmas here yet, we’ve heard stories about all the splendor it brings. There are the usual family gatherings, of course, and the never-ending barrage of food and presents.

But weather permitting, there are also many who take to the great outdoors to enjoy family time with winter sports. From snowshoeing and skiing to sledding and ice hockey on the lakes, it’s a tradition that is embraced alongside mugs of hot cocoa and fireside chats.

This year, we are looking forward to spending the last holiday of 2011, New Year’s Eve, in the comfort of our own home for the first time. And we already have a plan that lets us ring in 2012 twice, a phenomenon available only to those who straddle two time zones.

At 10:59PM, we’ll leave the warmth of the woodstove in our family room to step out onto the deck overlooking Edmundston, New Brunswick. An hour ahead, the city will celebrate the New Year before American countdowns begin. Then, 59 minutes later, we’ll repeat it all over again. The winter is long and the bonus celebration is, perhaps, the nicest gift that the Other Maine offers without fail each and every holiday season.

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