This season in Spokane is sprinkled with Santa sightings – at the mall, at Christmas parties, at the symphony. And on Christmas Eve, children across the city will stare at the sky, hoping to catch a glimpse of that legendary sleigh pulled by a slew of reindeer.
But for Spokane Valley resident Lynn McGee, Santa sightings were an everyday occurrence for 32 years. That’s because she lived in North Pole, Alaska, “where the spirit of Christmas lives year round,” according to the city’s Web site.
“It was a nice, romantic place to live,” said McGee, 83, who moved to Spokane over a year ago to be near family. “People there are great. It has a wonderful sense of community.”
In North Pole, which is 14 miles southeast of Fairbanks and 140 miles south of the Arctic Circle, you see Christmas spirit every day, said McGee, describing how the streetlights look like peppermint sticks, the street signs sport names like “Mistletoe Drive” and “Snowman Lane” and many homes and businesses stay decorated throughout the year.
Living in North Pole brought a sense of camaraderie where the residents are “sharing a strange place in the world,” she said.
McGee described how kids in the neighborhood like to talk to Santa and his reindeer at the famous Santa Claus House, where tourists come to see Santa and sit on his lap, even in July.
Since she lived just a mile from the Santa Claus House, McGee often saw Santa riding his red and white motorcycle in the summertime. That’s when it’s too sunny and warm for snow or sleighs.
“People think it’s snow all the time, but we have gorgeous summers,” said McGee, explaining that the snow melts mid-April and in the summer it stays light all day and most of the night.
The constant sunshine, she said, makes the flowers grow quickly, so she loved to garden.
Of course those sunny summers are offset by dark winters with just a few hours of light and bitter cold averaging 15 degrees below zero with lows down to minus 62 degrees. Everyone plugs in engine heaters, McGee said, adding that the schoolchildren still go outside for recess until the temperatures dip below minus 20.
“They don’t call off school except for ice fog,” she added, describing how, when temperatures hover around 50 degrees below zero and the fog rolls in, it freezes with ice-crystals, making it impossible to even see the hood of your car.
“You keep your car in good shape and you don’t stay out long,” she said of surviving the cold. One year, she recalled, the stores couldn’t keep fan belts in supply because they kept getting brittle and breaking.
Though cold, it might come as a surprise that North Pole doesn’t get a lot of snow, said McGee, noting that they might have 3 feet by spring, but only because the winters stay below freezing.
The cold makes a perfect setting for another of North Pole’s demonstrations of Christmas spirit: an ice-sculpture park and carving contest called Christmas in Ice. Carvers come from all over the world to create fantastic ice sculptures and the park includes a kids’ area with ice slides and an ice maze.
If the community had any Grinches, you wouldn’t know it, said McGee. In fact, every year the North Pole post office receives bags of letters addressed to Santa from children across the country. Obviously more than one busy Santa could handle, she said volunteers from around the community, including many local eighth-graders, write individual letters back.
It’s one of many ways the community captures the spirit of Christmas, which for McGee goes beyond the obvious lights and presents. “It is the feeling of participation and people are more aware of each other and anxious to help or do something for a neighbor.”
Though she left North Pole for Spokane, where Santa sightings are limited to the holidays, McGee sees a similar sense of community spirit in both cities. “People in Spokane are considerate of each other. There is outreach to help those less fortunate,” she said, adding that, in both places, if your car breaks down beside the road, someone is sure to stop and help.