It is Christmas Eve in Alaska - 1918.
On a small island in Resurrection Bay about 12 miles from Seward, a New York artist cleans his make-shift cabin converted from an old goat house. He hangs his canvasses from the rafters, folds and moves aside his easel, decorates the roof timbers with dense hemlock boughs, and hauls in a day's worth of wood for the stove.
Rockwell Kent (1882-1971) - painter, illustrator, adventurer, writer, political activist - had settled on Fox Island with his 9-year-old son in September, a guest of 71-year-old Lars Matt Olson, who ran a fox farm and raised goats there. Kent was relatively unknown as an artist at the time. His fame would come later. For now, Kent, who had already ventured to the coast of Maine and Newfoundland, wanted peace from a troubled marriage and a world at war.
At 36, Kent had not been able to earn a living as an artist. As frigid winds buffeted the mountain peaks and glaciers surrounding his island while the world seemed on the brink of destruction, Kent faced his own personal demon. Perhaps in wilderness he would find himself and in himself he would find art. As Christmas approached, Kent was determined to surprise Olson with a special celebration. The Swede didn't observe Christmas and expected the holiday to pass as any other day. Kent also tried to imagine how he could make Christmas special for his son. Money was scarce and the mail steamer with gifts and letters from New York was behind schedule. It probably would arrive in Seward too late for a Fox Island Christmas. Kent would have to improvise.
As he planned the holiday celebration, Kent joked: "I've given up the idea of dressing Olson as Santa Claus in goat's wool whiskers. Santa Claus without presents would move us to tears." Kent's son had already been told not to expect any gifts.
As a present for Olson, Kent drew a picture of the Swede as the "king of the island...striding out to feed the goats while Billy, rearing on his hind legs, tries to steal the food." His son's simple sketch depicted Olson, with his cabin in the background, surrounded by all his animals.
It is Christmas day on Fox Island - 1918.
Kent sets up a 9 1/2-foot spruce, all dripping wet, attaches the candles and places on its tip a cardboard and tin foil star. While his son plays outside, Kent hangs sticks of candy, lights the candles, and distributes the surprise presents under the glowing tree. As winter's early dusk quickly turns to night, and Kent looks upon the beautiful scene he has created out of life's routines, his son, with Olson in tow, opens the cabin door - and both the boy and the old man stand in awe. They enter, speechless, and the two adults drink a solemn, quiet toast.
The Kents give Olson his pictures, as well as a painting, a kitchen set and a pocket knife. The old Swede is overcome. Kent's son, who had expected nothing, gets a book, two old National Geographic magazines, a pocket knife and a broken fountain pen. The youngster sits on his bunk looking at his presents "as if they were the most wonderful gifts in the world."
As the cold darkness envelops the cabin and the tree glows cheerfully, the trio sits down to a feast. The Kents dress in clean, white shirts. Olson wears his Sunday pants and vest and a new flannel shirt with a gold nugget pin attached to his silk tie. He has even shaved and unevenly clipped his hair.
Kent's hand-printed menu lists olives and pickles, spaghetti a la Fox Island, beans a la Resurrection Bay, murphies en casserole, cranberry sauce, plum pudding magnifique, sauce a la Alaska rum, nuts, raisins, bonbons, and home-sweet-home cider.
After dinner they extinguished the Christmas candles to save them for another day. Olson bid them good night and returned to his cabin. Father and son tumbled into bed.
They rested during those awkward days between Christmas and New Year's. Routine chores, play and work occupied most of their time. Kent's art continued to satisfy him: "Today I made so good a drawing," he wrote on Dec. 29, "that I'm sitting up as if the flight of time and the coming of morning were no concern of mine."
It is New Year's Eve in Alaska - almost 1919.
Olson visits the Kent's with a gift - a pan of goat's milk. Kent plays his flute and sings. "What a strange performance here in the wilderness," he writes. "A little boy, an old man, listening as I sing loudly and solemnly to them without accompaniment.
As winter turns to spring, Kent realizes his stay in Alaska is almost over. He reflects on the adventure he and his son have experienced. "It seems that we have both together by chance turned out of the beaten, crowded way," he writes in his journal, "and come to stand face-to-face with that infinite and unfathomable thing which is the wilderness; and here we have found OURSELVES, for wilderness is nothing else."
Kent left Alaska in March and moved to Vermont where he wrote and illustrated his first book, Wilderness: A Journal of Quiet Adventure in Alaska. A New York show of his Alaska art was successful and his career was launched.
Despite his many later travels and successes, Kent always recalled that Alaska Christmas with special fondness. In later years, he excerpted the Christmas chapters from Wilderness and published them in a little volume called A Northern Christmas.
He would never forget that unique Christmas he had created from life's routines. "I suppose the greatest festivals of our lives," he once wrote, "are those at which we dance ourselves."