1. Get that Currier and Ives print out of your mind. It wasn't even valid back in the day. I know because as a child in Colorado, I inhabited the realms of that frosty winter fantasy adorning those very postcards. But what the tourists imagine and what was real were two very different things. I remember how visitors would coo when they saw our windowsill lightly frosted with starbursts of diamond icing. But they weren't around the next morning when my folks had to scramble out the top window of our house because a storm had brought drifts so colossal our front door wouldn't budge. For the skiers, a hundred inches of snow is heaven. But in the practical matter of getting hay to the livestock, you end up with chill blains and frostbite.

Those jingle bells? On the harnesses of the massive draft horses of Strawberry Park whose job it was to bring hay to stranded livestock, there was nothing jolly about them—that sound was there to avert a collision in blizzard whiteouts.

And while everyone else had Christmas turkey they bought at a store, we had goose—the other dark meat—from goslings we had hand-raised the previous spring and whose sweet peeps I recalled ruefully when my aunt brought out the carving knife.

It wasn't all bad, by any means. But it was never easy. Still, I loved the cheery holiday candles and lights designed to hold the dark at bay when days were shortest and the nights so cold my breath condensed above the down quilts. My guardian would treat me to a piece of horehound candy while my pajamas were heating in the coal stove oven. I would then have to sprint for bed while they were still warm. This brings me to my next point.

2. Don't take your family or your home for granted. They will not be around forever. Just before my fourth Christmas, my mother and I were staying in Denver. So in preparation for the holiday, my middle sister, who was already 15, fetched me back to Steamboat Springs with the understanding that my mother would follow shortly. The next night, however, one of those fuming blizzards settled down around the Rockies, which led the landlord at Mama's rooming house to fire the furnaces as high as they would go. But the chimneys hadn't been properly maintained and the house filled with carbon monoxide poison that night, asphyxiating my mother, who was only 39. Seven days later, I found myself in a strange house with neither parent and a new guardian who was so desolate herself she had little comfort to offer me. Strict and religious, she was always critical of my "guitar-pickin' Daddy," and especially scandalized when I turned out to have a proclivity for country music as well. I had neither seen his instruments nor heard him play. So it was such a profound moment when my nephew walked me into his music room and held out the guitar my father, a master craftsman, had built. I held it and played—as I think he would have—songs about horses. And then my nephew—a gifted singer and songwriter—began tuning his own steel string. And my 6-year-old great-niece—who sparkles with her own high-spirited dose of the family smarts—picked up her little pink guitar and launched into "Jingle Bells."


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