For those hoping to get into the holiday spirit, deciding which of Portland’s many Yuletide events to attend can be a daunting decision—especially when so many of them concern religion. (YUCK!) However, a few of these events—even the religious ones (YUCK!)—are actually the perfect remedy for those who lack the proper holiday spirit. That’s why we’ve chosen five of the most supremely underrated seasonal events that even the grinchiest among us will enjoy. (Plus we’ve thrown in one criminally overrated happening that you should avoid at all cost—can you guess which one it is?) Happy holidays from all of your pals at the Mercury!
The Grotto’s Festival of Lights: UNDERRATED
Branded as a place of “peace, prayer, and natural beauty,” the Grotto is not a destination I’d normally frequent, simply because I don’t subscribe to any particular religion. (However, I will celebrate Christmas for its Pagan rituals and traditions of gift-giving, excessive time spent on light displays, and unspeakable amounts of food.) But on a dry day, with a caramel apple cider in hand, the Grotto’s Christmas Festival of Lights is a perfect casual walk and (surprisingly) even a sweet destination for a date.
As my male accomplice and I arrived at the Grotto’s Festival of Lights, hordes of noisy children were leaving—always a good sign. Upon entering we passed a bunch of towering wooden religious plaques, each with a pre-recorded voice booming unneeded Biblical information. Fortunately, those didn’t last long, after which we enjoyed a nice—and thankfully QUIET—walk (other than the occasional choral group or outdoor puppet show) through the festival grounds, which were packed with dazzling lights.
The Grotto really does have a lot going for it in the natural beauty department. In addition to all the elaborate light displays, I loved looking up to see the massive, almost ominous pine trees above us; religious sculptures and candle-lit shrines, such the Grotto’s epic rock cave featuring a statue replica of Michelangelo’s Pietà (the Virgin Mother holding Jesus), and an illuminated Christmas Star, AKA the Star of Bethlehem.
And while I’m not religious, I do love me a quality nativity scene—because what’s not to love about hanging out with a gaggle of friendly farm animals? These sociable critters (provided by Debbie Doolittle’s Indoor Petting Zoo) were by far the best part of my evening, where I met a somewhat shy donkey, some cute, charging goats (one of whom attempted to eat my sweater), and a very gregarious llama with envy-worthy eyelashes. I may not have known it before, but petting a llama surrounded by icicle lights and trees is my happy place. JENNI MOORE
The Holiday Express Train: UNDERRATED
Oaks Amusement Park is a 30-minute bike ride from Portland’s downtown if you use the Springwater Trail that runs next to the Willamette. Riding this path at night is normally one of my favorite thrills due to its eerie stillness, quiet, and lack of light pollution—but I happily traded that silence when I saw the Holiday Express. The old-timey steam locomotive barreled out of the darkness, covered in lights that spell out “Merry Christmas” and stuffed with children screaming about Santa. Sure, for some this could be considered a nightmare. But for me, it was hilarious. (If you’re averse to this particular type of horror, check the Oregon Rail Heritage Foundation site next season to find out which rides are less inundated with screaming kids. Sunday evenings are pretty low key.)
Be prepared for a visit from Santa, as his presence on the train is the primary draw for many families. In other words, don’t be like the little girl across the aisle from me who anxiously whispered, “Santa’s here?” obviously thinking she had until later in the month to start being good. The Santa on my train was excellent, as were his helpers—the traditional pairing of an over-exuberant teen and a depressed one.
Depressed Teen Elf: “Stop showing off!”
Hyper Teen Elf: “Stop being so negative!”
Depressed Teen Elf: “You know I can’t do that though.”
The Holiday Express Train has exactly the sort of unpretentious holiday hygge I like: the event is staffed by good-natured volunteers who—if you’re not there exclusively for Santa—are super down to talk about trains. Plus the hot chocolate is reasonably priced, and you get a cookie with it! There’s obviously a lot of care involved along with the desire to get young kids interested in trains while taking a cozy 40-minute train ride along the Willamette. My judgment? The holidays could use more events like the Holiday Express. Whooooo! Whoooo! All aboard this UNDERRATED train! SUZETTE SMITH
Midnight Mass: UNDERRATED
The Catholic Church is a global criminal organization wrapped up in a homophobic cult wrapped up in a literal misreading of an ancient origin myth.
However, it does put on a nice midnight Christmas Eve Mass.
Everyone packs into the pews with their wet boots and winter coats, and because most of the attendees aren’t pious weekly parishioners, the required sitting, standing, singing, and reciting is a fun, chaotic mess.
Here are a few other things I love about a Christmas Eve Mass:
THE MUSIC—At any mass, the musical repertoire is usually thus: An adult choir that is respectably decent, a kids’ choir whose high-pitched sing-shouting will make you wonder what the choir director puts in her coffee to get through the service, and a piano or organ played by either a gnarl-fingered elderly woman whom I assume lives in the church basement or a college-age kid who’s clearly questioning his beliefs, but still plays for the $20 stipend. At Christmas, you’ll be especially encouraged to sing along loudly, and no one will care how off-key you are.
THE PRIEST—Christmas is one of the priest’s biggest nights, so whatever typical rhetorical devices he usually employs will be turned up to 11—and he’ll even be decked out in purple, the color of Advent. He is probably Irish or Italian, most likely old, and speaks in either an incomprehensible mumble or a booming, sing-songy yell. Which variation will you get this year?!
THE SIGN OF PEACE—Catholic masses have a lot of weird traditions: the incense, the altar boys, the belief in a magical, all-knowing being. But one tradition not to be missed is the Sign of Peace, the time right after Communion when you get to shake hands with everyone sitting near you and say, “Peace be with you.” Especially at a Christmas Eve Mass, with a packed house full of holiday merriment, this simple gesture is enough to pierce this cynic’s heart every single time. BLAIR STENVICK
Christmas Ships: ETERNALLY UNDERRATED
Listen closely in the coldest, darkest hours, and you will hear the wheezing whispers of ancient elders as they recall a forgotten tragedy of a distant epoch: The Willamette Valley Flood of 1996.
“Scientists” claim the flood was caused by hard-frozen ground, by angry rain, by a capricious jetstream. Others say the cataclysm, like that of Noah, was our Lord’s just punishment—for in 1996, the number-one song of the Billboard Year-End Hot 100 Singles list was Los del Río’s “Macarena (Bayside Boys Mix).”
Regardless! Our turgid rivers engorged and swelled, sending bulging veins of water where no water should be. A furious moistness deluged our land, coursing through the streets of Tillamook and Oregon City, threatening to sweep Portland to the sea.
What our ancient elders forget, however, was that it could have been much worse.
For long centuries, the furious, needle-toothed mer-folk who lurk among the rotting ruins in the depths of the Willamette River have coveted our fair city, their icy eyes glinting with greed. In 1996, as their brackish domain threatened to submerge us, they rubbed together their scaly hands.
“At last!” gurgled Aquilorn, Cruel King of the Mer-People. “Soon the City of Roses will be the City of Plants That Grow Underwater, and we shall gurgle and cackle as we swim amongst Portlanders’ bloated corpses!”
“NOT SO FAST,” bellowed the brave skippers of the Christmas Ships, their voices like thunder across the waves.
Aquilorn gurgled in shock—for the Christmas Ships were seen but once a year... at Christmas. And Christmas was far, far away.
Or was it?
For as the Christmas Ships’ skippers revved the tiny engines on their little novelty boats, a blessed light burst forth! With their jaunty Christmas lights a-twinkle, the Christmas Ships slowly puttered up and down our roiling river!
Shielding his eyes with webbed fingers, Aquilorn gurgled with rage—and he, along with his soulless minions, slithered back below the waves, back to their foul ruins.
But oh! They are not content. Each autumn, the mer-people hunger—for vengeance, and for the waterlogged bones of Portland’s children.
Each autumn, the mer-people scheme... and each winter, they are foiled.
For each December, the Christmas Ships once again toot-toot-toot across our waters, sometimes going in little circles as they banish the Willamette’s vile horrors and give Portlanders a super-cute lightshow. Their lights winking and glittering with wondrous whimsy, the Christmas Ships spread holiday cheer... even though their skippers never speak of their true mission.
Next time you see a Christmas Ship, salute! Next time you see a Christmas Ship skipper, curtsy or bow! For were it not for the eternally underrated Christmas Ships, Portland would have long ago gasped and drowned, webbed fingers ’round its throat.
Thanks, Christmas Ships! ERIK HENRIKSEN
Live Nativity Scenes: UNDERRATED
Because you are a regular reader of the Mercury, I assume you’re like myself and my co-workers: Godless heathens who haven’t been near a church in decades. That’s why I’m here to tell you that houses of worship get up to some truly weird shit this time of year... like live nativity displays. Not satisfied to simply plop down a bunch of plastic figurines of Joseph, Mary, and eight-pound, six-ounce baby Jesus in a tasteful display by their front door, some churches call on their congregation—and occasionally live animals!—to act out the story of Christ’s birth in ways both elaborate and, let’s be honest, a little fucking creepy.
Over at the Lake Bible Church in Lake Oswego, you walk through a theater-quality recreation of the town of Bethlehem, led by a daring soul squeezed into a Roman Centurion costume who shows you the way to the barn where the Christ child was brought into this miserable world. Along the way, you can enjoy the sight of live sheep and goats trying to break free from their restraints, and at the end... COOKIES!
By far the most surreal living nativity scene I’ve witnessed is presented by the Lynchwood Church of God, which has been running seasonally for 32 years. On the sidewalk outside the church there’s a series of booths, each one depicting a key moment before Mary gives birth to the son of God (or, you know... whoever the father actually was). But here’s the thing: The live humans who populate each booth... never... move... a muscle. Like stone statues, these poor folks are required to continually hold a Biblical pose which, to me, seems like torture—unless, of course, you’re comparing it to the suffering of Jesus. In any case, the living nativity scene is still an amazing display of physicality and sheer will that, like most exhibitions of faith, can be read as beautiful or reckless. So... good show, live nativity scenes! Good show. ROBERT HAM
Peacock Lane: WILDLY OVERRATED
Peacock Lane is five-block stretch of homes which, every holiday season, are decked out in an abundance of lights and decorations. This has been a tradition since 1929—a year when such a sight might have been considered slightly interesting. However, the following bitch-sesh is not about the poor homeowners who are, frankly, just doing their best after being roped into this unnecessary, electricity-wasting tradition—it’s about the tens of thousands of looky-loo spectators who descend upon this neighborhood like Gap sweater-wearing, leg-dragging members of the walking dead.
For the purposes of this story, I attended Peacock Lane’s opening night festivities when the street is closed to cars—and it was
still a goddamn nightmare. I’ll admit that the lights and decorations were better than your average home and came with themes that reflected the true spirit of Christmas—Jesus and Santa, with two yards devoted to Star Wars. My award for best display is a tie, with one going to the home featuring a ten-foot inflatable statue of Marvel’s Black Panther holding a present, and a llama-themed yard that included an actual llama. (Note: Don’t get overly excited about this and embarrass yourself like those pants-shitting Peacock Lane interlopers. Guys... it’s a fucking llama, which in Portland are about as common as STDs.)
But really, it was hard to see any light displays over the thousands of people who were slooowly shuffling down the lane like damned souls descending into hell (most of whom smelled like they’d been dragged through a swimming pool filled with Walgreens perfume). What follows are a few tips for those who plan on visiting Peacock Lane this holiday season, even though they’re clearly contributing to making Earth a terrible place:
• Young Portland Moms: Congratulations on procreating. But if you know you’re heading to a street that’s going to be crammed with 10,000 people, maybe leave the double-stroller at home?
• Young Portland Dog Parents: Congratulations on paying thousands of dollars for a corgi instead of a rescue dog from the shelter. We realize how important it is to show off your purchase, so you can feel like you’ve gotten your money’s worth. But while watching a snarling corgi/weiner dog fight in the middle of the street is entertaining in most instances, I don’t appreciate it as much when it’s happening three inches from my ankle.
• You Don’t Need Hot Cocoa. And yet I counted 57 people (57!) standing in line for what I assume was powdered Swiss Miss! Federal law does not dictate you have to drink hot cocoa! However, if you’ve somehow convinced yourself that hot cocoa is the only thing that will soothe your jangled Peacock Lane nerves—and we know that’s not true, because 70 percent of you were high as fuck—bring your warm drinks from home.
• Speaking of which: Don’t take so many drugs! The sober people are busy trying to avoid the army of double strollers and random weiner dog fights—so don’t get so high that you’re hypnotized by a green twinkly-lighted bush and end up blocking the sidewalk for 20 minutes. (Sidenote: The person who opened up a pot shop half a block away from Peacock Lane is a goddamn genius.)
The truth is, the only people I saw who knew what they were doing was a group of 10-year-olds who, observing me expertly maneuvering my way through the crowd, formed a line behind me singing, “Conga, conga, con-GA!” thereby inspiring the dope-addled, double-strolling-pushing, angry dog-owning throng of holiday zombies to get the fuck out of my way.
Other than that, Peacock Lane was pretty cool. WM. STEVEN HUMPHREY