Christmas Cheer in Lower Queen Anne
I lay my hat in Lower Queen Anne, the pleasing urban pocket where cohabiting young couples, daffy cat ladies and people who have made poor life choices meet. Seattleites are as fiercely loyal to their neighborhoods as any folk I’ve come across, and I am one of them; I can’t imagine living anywhere else in this city but at the bottom of the hill (I will never call it “Uptown”). And I’m never happier to be here than at Christmastime, for a host of reasons such as these:
City slickers + icy roads = the greatest show on earth. The early freeze this November marked the welcome return of our block’s most anticipated seasonal event. Forget flying down a closed-off Queen Anne Hill via laundry baskets, roasting pans and other makeshift sleds. When icy weather hits and cars veer off the main drag to wind up the grade along our side street, it’s time to pop the corn and take a front-row seat. It only takes a couple of overconfident drivers to get things started: they hit those slick patches in the turn, and every window shade on the corner opens for the low-speed demolition derby. The season opener was the best in years, with nearly a dozen cars abandoned by the end of the night and a visit from local news networks the following morning. “I’ll remember that forever,” remarked a young man to his buddy as they departed the scene, cameras in hand. (Lest I give the impression we are all animals in this neighborhood, a number of kind souls did spend the evening in the street, pushing stuck vehicles and offering sound advice to inexperienced winter motorists on how to steer out of a skid.)
The Winter Train and Village is the highlight of Seattle Center’s Winterfest. The trains making the circuit of Centerville may be the draw for some grown-up boys, but to me the fun is in seeking out the smallest details: cottony coils billowing from chimneys, a mailbox stuffed full with individual packages. A colorful hot air balloon floats on a pulley above the town, which is populated by people and animals of comically varying scale. (Small plastic cats are evidently a good novelty buy, as Centerville boasts an unusually large population.) The au courant civil engineers even thought to include a homeless encampment (complete with stick-and-bandanna hobo bundles and a hound dog), staked out on, yes, the wrong side of the tracks. A glut of children and adults stands agog in front the massive model town at all hours; the adjacent Starbucks must make forty percent of its annual take in the weeks that the display is up. Centerville is a can’t-miss part of Winterfest fun—along with Fisher Pavilion’s tiny makeshift skating rink, thick with kiddies and the funk of damp rental skates and microwave pizza. Should you manage to make it once around without incurring an expensive hip injury, why not celebrate by repairing to Queen Anne Avenue for…
Irish coffees at the Mecca. Thank God and Santa for the heavy pours at Lower Queen Anne’s king of dives. Where else can one enjoy the ambient blend of ’70s rock and TBS sitcoms while rubbing elbows with the neighborhood’s urban outdoorsmen, inked and shrapnel-faced youth, and creative (read: unemployed) elite at all hours? Part ’50s diner, part black hole, the Mecca is a great argument for the walkability of LQA—no one needs to be driving after a few rounds of the dangerously smooth concoctions served up at the bar. Take some time to regain your bearings afterward by browsing the bookstore or Easy Street Records; just beware those three-drink impulse purchases. (“‘The Greatest Hits of Kenny Loggins’? What the hell happened last night?”)
Is there anyone in town who doesn’t have a crush on Kevin Gallagher, the frankly blond sign-language interpreter for the Seattle Men’s Chorus? (I know, the Chorus is a downtown event, but what’s a ten-minute bus ride? Plus, they do the occasional gig at McCaw Hall, so I’m claiming them for the purposes of this exercise.) The group’s holiday shows are a surfeit of song, costumes and terrific stage business, but throughout the program I catch myself fixated on Gallagher’s graceful accompaniment—often delightfully expressive of some of the Chorus’s naughtier material. Signing takes center stage for their magical “Silent Night”—two hundred gents in tuxes and white gloves performing with their hands alone—which I am never able to watch without shedding a tear. Happily, they always send the crowd away on a high note; I’m waiting for them to top their raucous “Christmas in Hollis” of a few years back.
For me, anyway, the season officially begins with the lighting of the Space Needle Christmas Tree—and humbug to those who find it cheesy or garish. The familiar golden beacon of holiday cheer topping the city is visible through cold, clear nights for miles, so long as you’re high enough or have a clear shot. That January day when it disappears is a wistful reminder that it’s time to get back into gear; but while it shines bright from the day after Thanksgiving until New Year’s, all is right with the world. I plug in my own lights, put on Johnny Mathis’s (or Brian Setzer’s) “O Holy Night,” curl up with a mug of cider and watch from my window as it illuminates the peculiar midnight-blue winter sky of the Pacific Northwest. Only the grinchiest of hearts could fail to grow three sizes at such a sight.
PHOTO BY THE AUTHOR