Image: Holidazzle Parade
Jim Mone  /  AP
Thousands of people line the Nicollet Mall in downtown Minneapolis late last month during the Holidazzle Parade with its fairy-tale and Christmas themes.
updated 12/7/2006 3:33:09 PM ET 2006-12-07T20:33:09

Heading home for the holidays, I'm already smiling as the plane approaches the Twin Cities of Minneapolis and St. Paul. The surrounding farm country is blinding in its unbroken whiteness through the flat horizon.

In its final approach over downtown Minneapolis, the plane swoops over the Mississippi River, sugar-white patches of snow floating on its lapis lazuli surface, and the chain of city lakes. I see skaters have cleared a shiny swath of Lake of the Isles in front of wreathed mansions. Cross-country skiers (some of them no doubt sporting jingling reindeer antlers) do the rounds of Lake Calhoun, while ice-fishers are drilling holes in Lake Harriet.

Any visitor who joins them on lakes and trails gets the hearty welcome of the initiated — one who has seen through the exaggeratedly scary reputation of bone-freezing cold and realized that this is the season the Twin Cities really shine.

Such are the memories of Christmases past for those of us who call the area home. One of my favorite wintertime moments was when two ice-fishers gave me barely liquid beer as the reward for having drilled my first hole through at least a foot of ice into black lake water. I drank the beer standing on Lake Harriet 50 yards from a popular beach, the downtown skyline reflecting the setting sun a few miles to the north.

Hot chocolate is a preferred drink at the Holidazzle, an evening, 30-minute parade with a dozen floats and hundreds of characters all decked in glittering lights on downtown Minneapolis' main shopping street, Nicollet Mall.

Think Minnesotans exaggerate their Nordic prowess? The parade, in its 15th season, is only canceled for blizzards or at least minus 20 wind chill, that deadly combination of actual temperature and the speed of winds blowing in from the Canadian and Dakota plains. And of course, weather varies from year to year; the mean temperature on Christmas Day for the past five years has ranged from 34 to minus 4.

Admittedly, there's a way to cheat. You can watch the parade from the glass-enclosed skyways that crisscross the Twin Cities' downtowns at second-floor level. It's so warm inside that you can walk sleeveless to restaurants and shops, none of which is more crowded that the Minneapolis Macy's on Nicollet Mall.

Thousands of children stand in line for hours every holiday season to watch the animated holiday display at the downtown Macy's, which this year tells Mary Poppins' story.

Even the 14-story building that houses the 3M Co.'s world headquarters takes part in the holiday. Rows of rooms are left with lights on every night so that a Christmas tree takes shape over the facade of the glass tower on I-94, the main east-west interstate rolling into the Twin Cities.

I don't even like shopping, but no Dec. 26 goes by without my fighting the throngs of fellow pursuers of holiday sales through the Mall of America, with its 520 stores on four floors and an amusement park in the middle — all indoors of course, 70 degrees year-round.

It'd be worth visiting the country's largest mall, next to the airport in the suburb of Bloomington, only for the multi-floor wreaths, the car-size red and gold balls, a 1,496-square-foot gingerbread house and the towering trees in the main rotunda where community, school and professional groups hold holiday concerts.

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It's hard to envision that the first, unthinkably cold-resistant pioneers settled just upriver of this temple to consumption. The mansions their descendants built in the 19th and early 20th centuries return to the air of Christmases past with their decorations.

Costumed guides tell the stories of women made to faint on their settees by their absurdly tight corsets at the Alexander Ramsey house, just north of a St. Paul square lined with brightly colored Victorian houses.

Christmas is just as Victorian up the bluff overlooking the Mississippi at the James J. Hill House, built for a railroad magnate in 1891 at the beginning of Summit Avenue, St. Paul's mansion-lined historic answer to Fifth Avenue. Nearby, the massive bulk of the 1915 Cathedral of St. Paul is set off by red-ribboned wreaths and towers of poinsettias.

Half an hour east of town, in the former lumberjack settlement of Stillwater on the St. Croix River, the 1870 courthouse is decorated to celebrate Minnesota's ethnic heritage with all things Scandinavian.

The same spirit — down to straw animals hanging from the Christmas trees — pervades "Nordic Christmas" at Minneapolis' Swedish Institute, the mansion built by Swedish immigrants at the turn of the century. Their heads crowned by candles, girls in white carry cookies during the festivities to recall the feats of St. Lucia, the fourth-century martyr who, legend has it, carried food to starving Swedes across a lake.

And no old-fashioned holiday would be complete without Charles Dickens' "A Christmas Carol," which the Guthrie Theater has brought on stage for more than 30 years. For the first time this season, it will be at the Guthrie's new home on the Mississippi in Minneapolis' historic milling district. Theater-goers will get sweeping river views from the new building's futuristic hanging bridge.

But for the iconic shot of Minneapolis, you have to go back to the original Guthrie site and have your picture taken in front of the giant spoon-with-cherry sculpture by Claes Oldenburg and Coosje van Bruggen in the Walker Art Center's Sculpture Garden — capped with freshly fallen snow and with glowing skyscrapers in the background.

And as you pull away to head to another museum, a ski trail or that last-minute gift-hunt, listen for the slide-and-crunch sound that cars make on immaculate snow.

Clearer than the Salvation Army bells, it spells Christmas in the Twin Cities.

As does the chuckle that ripples through my plane as it nears the airport. The pilot has just announced it's a balmy 10 degrees. The uninitiated gasp, but the Minnesotans aboard are already reveling in this real-life winter wonderland.

© 2012 The Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.


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