The Christmas Top: A 147-Year-Old Tradition Comes to Whidbey Island

Posted in Feature, History, More Stories, Video

Whidbey Life Magazine Contributor
December  21, 2016

A few years ago, I was in Minneapolis working on a video project, and I drove past my grandparent’s home on 44th Ave. South. I parked my rental car on East 54th, so I could see into the back yard, which was only one lot from the corner. I remembered my grandfather planting a tree there when I was seven or eight years old. The reason that memory was triggered is that the most prominent feature in the yard was a large tree that towered over the small stucco bungalow. I don’t know if it’s the one my grandfather planted, but now when I think of him, I have the image of that tree and the thought of how something that grows imperceptibly can become so large over the course of a lifetime.

James Linsley was a simple man who wasn’t impressed by “gadgets” or flashy things. When he was young, he dreamed of being a farmer, and he tried to make a go of it in northern Minnesota near Park Rapids. It was the middle of the Great Depression, though, and it didn’t work. The family moved back to Minneapolis, where he continued to work as a streetcar conductor and later a bus driver. But, like the tree that now dominates the backyard of the house my mother grew up in, somehow the memory of him is an out-sized presence in the family.

Nothing symbolizes that presence more than the small brass top he would spin every year on Christmas Eve—a tradition begun by his father David Linsley in 1868. One of the family legends is about the time my grandfather arrived in Park Rapids by train on Christmas Eve. It was the early 1930’s. He was working for the streetcar company in Minneapolis while my grandmother, mother, and uncle stayed on the small farm they were trying to launch. A blizzard came, and there was no easy way to travel the ten miles from Park Rapids to the farm in Nevis.

The brass top that has been spun on 146 Christmases since 1868 by Mark Forman’s family. (Photo by Mark Forman)

He decided to walk. He had a flashlight, but it would never last the duration of the walk, so he settled on a system. He’d turn on the flashlight long enough to site the next utility pole on the road and get his bearings, he’d walk to the pole, and then he’d repeat the process … for ten miles. He stopped a few times to shelter in barns when there was one close to the road but mostly he just walked, one pole at a time, so he could be with his family for Christmas. I suppose that year he spun the top on Christmas Day instead of Christmas Eve.

Since 1868, there were only two years when the top wasn’t spun: in 1904 when it was packed inside a wagon as the family moved, and in 1959 when my grandparents visited my family after we’d moved to Illinois. My grandfather forgot to pack it and there was no practical way to retrieve it.

I first saw it spin on the oak floor of my grandparents’ house in Minneapolis. This year it will spin for the first time on the floor of my home on Whidbey Island. My wife Kathleen and I moved here in September, 2015, and on Christmas Eve of that year, the top was spun by my nephew, also named James, in his home in Spokane. This year, I will spin the top for the first time as a member of the generation that is now responsible for maintaining the tradition.

It seems fitting that I do this on Whidbey, which, for me, feels like a home I’ve returned to that I didn’t know I had. Physically, the extended family is spread out much more than it’s been at times in the past. So this will be a small ceremony, which also seems fitting. It feels true to the spirit in which my grandfather led his life, with humble simplicity but with great impact.

Mark Forman is a filmmaker and writer who moved to Whidbey Island with his wife Kathleen Secrest in 2015. Mark’s favorite projects include: “The King of the Hobos,” a film portrait of Steam Train Maury Graham, which aired on PBS at the beginning of Mark’s career; a promotional video for La Romita School of Art in the Umbrian region of Italy filmed in 2008; and a fund-raising video that he and Kathleen produced this fall as a donation to the Whidbey Institute.


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