Full disclosure: I am not a native New Englander. Technically I am from away.
But I love New England with a ferocity that surprises me and amuses my family, who are scattered from California to New York City and even Europe. This is, after all, Nowhere, New Hampshire, as my youngest likes to remind me whenever he visits.
Part of my love for New England springs from its distinctive seasons—the usual four plus mud. Most flatlanders complain about the winters, and I expected to whine right along with them, visions of Ethan Frome darkening my overactive imagination. But after nearly 20 years, winter is now my favorite time of the year. I love tramping through the snowy woods with the dogs and gazing up at the winter sky at night and reading long novels in front of the fire. But most of all I love Christmas.
Now I’ve always loved the holidays, but Christmas here is Little Women and Charles Dickens and Norman Rockwell all rolled into one—with a little Amy Poehler thrown in just to keep it interesting—and local traditions reflect this.
HOMECUT CHRISTMAS TREE
Eighty percent of Americans have fake Christmas trees—but you wouldn’t know that here. In New England, real trees rule. Cutting down your own spruce or fir on your own property is the best, but if you must, you can always go to one of the hundreds of choose-and-cut tree farms. There’s nothing like the fresh scent of pine….
If you want a real tree this year, better hurry. New Englanders typically put up their trees right after Thanksgiving—the longer the ho-ho-ho season, the better—and you may find yourself out of luck. On our first Christmas here, I took my son to get a tree the Sunday before Christmas as has always been our custom, only to find the town lot empty of trees. We found a reject by the dumpster and took it home. A real Charlie Brown tree.
CANDLES IN THE WINDOW
While there are families like the Griswolds who go overboard decorating their houses, New Englanders usually prefer a more nostalgic and elegant approach. The classic adornment: A single candle illuminating each and every window in the house. House after house after house, from Rhode Island to Maine to Vermont. Simple and beautiful. Simply beautiful.
I experienced my first Yankee Swap at my company Christmas party. Here’s how it works: Everyone brings a wrapped gift that costs no more than ten bucks—Yankee thrift!—and puts in in a pile. Everyone gets a number, and #1 chooses a present, opens it, and shows it off. #2 does the same, but if #2 prefers #1’s present, #2 can swap gifts with #1. This repeats until all have opened a gift and swapped it—or not. New Englanders take swapping very seriously—a throwback to the barter system of colonial times, no doubt—and emotions run high. My co-worker didn’t speak to me for weeks when I swapped a Dunkin’ Donuts gift card for his coveted set of glasses emblazoned with The Beatles. Bah humbug.
We New Englanders love our dogs. Many communities combine this obsession with canines with Christmas by holding Reindog Parades. Everyone dons a Santa suit and dresses their dogs in reindeer costumes and parades down Main Street to the town common. Best reindog wins a prize. Alas, this year most reindog parades are cancelled, and we have to settle for snapping photos of our reindogs to post on Facebook.
Note: We love our cats, too—there’s no getting through the winter without a cat on your lap and a dog at your feet—but most felines are too proud to play second fiddle to Kitty Claus.
OLD NEW ENGLAND EGG NOG
Perhaps the best-kept secret to a happy Yankee-style holiday is Old New England Egg Nog. I know, I know, you’ve probably had regular eggnog before and hated the sickeningly sweet thick cream-colored stuff—even when served with a splash of bourbon. Forget all that. This is natural eggnog so diluted with Kentucky Straight Bourbon Whiskey, Rum, Brandy, and Blended Whiskey that it slides down the throat as easily as chamomile tea—and packs a much stronger punch.
My 85-year-old mother, the reserved sort who rarely drinks, loves Old New England Egg Nog. Her grandchildren always bring several bottles to our winter get-togethers because 1) she drinks a lot of it; and 2) when she does, she gets tipsy and tells us all what she really thinks of us. A hilarious holiday highlight none of us would miss.
HAVE YOURSELF A MERRY LITTLE NEW ENGLAND CHRISTMAS
You, too, can have a New England Christmas. Just put a candle in the window, set up a real tree in your parlor, and decorate your dog with faux antlers. You can skip the Yankee Swap, save yourself the ten bucks, and buy a bottle of Old New England Egg Nog instead.
You’ll be glad you did.
Former Army MP Mercy Carr and her retired bomb-sniffing dog Elvis are back in Blind Search, the sequel to the page-turning, critically acclaimed A Borrowing of Bones
It’s October, hunting season in the Green Mountains—and the Vermont wilderness has never been more beautiful or more dangerous. Especially for nine-year-old Henry, who’s lost in the woods. Again. Only this time he sees something terrible. When a young woman is found shot through the heart with a fatal arrow, Mercy thinks that something is murder. But Henry, a math genius whose autism often silences him when he should speak up most, is not talking.
Now there’s a murderer hiding among the hunters in the forest—and Mercy and Elvis must team up with their crime-solving friends, game warden Troy Warner and search-and-rescue dog Susie Bear, to find the killer—before the killer finds Henry. When an early season blizzard hits the mountains, cutting them off from the rest of the world, the race is on to solve the crime, apprehend the murderer, and keep the boy safe until the snowplows get through.
Inspired by the true search-and-rescue case of an autistic boy who got lost in the Vermont wilderness, Paula Munier’s mystery is a compelling roller coaster ride through the worst of winter—and human nature.
Paula Munier is a literary agent and the USA TODAY bestselling author of the Mercy Carr mysteries. A Borrowing of Bones, the first in the series, was nominated for the Mary Higgins Clark Award and named the Dogwise Book of the Year. Blind Search was inspired by the real-life rescue of a little boy with autism who got lost in the woods. The Hiding Place debuts in March 2021. Paula credits the hero dogs of Mission K9 Rescue, her own rescue dogs and cat, and a deep love of New England as her series’ major influences. Paula has also written three popular books on writing: Plot Perfect, The Writer’s Guide to Beginnings, and Writing with Quiet Hands, as well as Fixing Freddie and Happier Every Day.