In a sea of corporate holiday celebrations, community-oriented crafts fairs like the Phinney Neighborhood Association's Winter Festival, running 38 years strong, can bring us down to earth.

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If you live on Phinney Ridge, you know the heart of the neighborhood isn’t one of its manifold coffee shops or yoga studios, but the hulking light-blue building at North 67th Street and Phinney Avenue North that, along with an auxiliary brick building to the east, houses the Phinney Neighborhood Association (PNA).

From the morning hours — when families swarm the playground and joggers stop to stretch — to well after most of us have headed home from work or school, the PNA is a hub of constant activity. Its lights stay on long into the evening, as the sounds of line-dancing classes or orchestra practice echo into the neighborhood beyond.

The PNA is, literally, my neighbor — I live practically next door and can see into it from my kitchen — and like the best next-door neighbors, it’s the perfect busybody hedge-talker. It always tells me what’s going on in the neighborhood, and its nighttime lights are a comfort.

When I moved back to Seattle last April, I didn’t know where I’d live. I’d spent part of my early 20s on Capitol Hill, but the noise and light pollution disrupted my sleep, and with the influx of weekend crowds and reports of hate crimes, I no longer recognized it as the neighborhood where I’d gotten my start as a journalist years before. I liked Georgetown, but it was too far from North Seattle, where my parents have made their home for over 30 years. So I did what might be unimaginable for most single 31-year-olds: I decided to move back to the neighborhood where I grew up, mere minutes from my parents’ house.

Holiday Events Guide 2018

Enchant Christmas, which features a light maze — such as this one, seen in an overhead view, in Arlington, Texas, last year — comes to Safeco Field starting Nov. 23. (Courtesy of Enchant Christmas)
Enchant Christmas, which features a light maze — such as this one, seen in an overhead view, in Arlington, Texas, last year — comes to Safeco Field starting Nov. 23. (Courtesy of Enchant Christmas)

And when I saw the apartment next to the PNA — the property manager, it turned out, was friends with my fifth-grade teacher — I knew I’d made the right decision. I loved it. It was a studio, but a big one, without the sterile look of the new builds in the neighborhood, and surprisingly cheap for the location.

Now, looking out at the PNA from my kitchen, I felt like I was waving to an old friend. I had spent my childhood walking its traffic-warped stairs to drama activities or the upstairs art gallery, slotting quarters into the vending machine at the entrance for a coveted root beer, playing pickup basketball beside the playground, attending political meetings with my dad and looking forward every year to the holiday craft fair that flooded the building with local arts and crafts each December.

As I took in the apartment’s dark-wood paneling, the odd old fixtures and incongruous sweeping view of the Cascades over Green Lake, I felt like Nora Ephron falling in love with her apartment at the Apthorp in New York City for the first time. Only instead of a divorce, I’d been through one failed cohabitation followed by a string of assorted roommates and a garret-sized basement apartment in Portland, Oregon, where my idea of holiday cheer had been drinking Rainiers in Christmas cans with my fellow alt-weekly employees after putting two issues of the paper to bed in the space of one week.

My previous homes had been shared, sometimes contentiously, but the apartment next to the PNA would be mine. Despite its proximity to my childhood home and all the sense memories that entailed, the apartment would be the first real place of my own. It would be a place where I could write and cook and read, and, if I got lonely, I only had to look out the window at the blue building to see what the neighborhood was up to.

A DIY sleeper hit

Even if I hadn’t grown up on Phinney Ridge, the PNA would probably still feel like a second home. From the farmers market in summer to the Día de los Muertos fundraiser for its bilingual preschool to the secular Phinneywood Phestivus celebration, and all manner of community breakfasts and beer tastings, the PNA brings a decidedly Stars Hollow vibe to this sleepy corner of the city sandwiched between Green Lake and Ballard.

But my favorite PNA tradition is the Winter Festival, an annual holiday craft fair now entering its 38th year. (This year it takes place Dec. 1-2.) As a kid, I would climb the center’s creaky old stairs clutching a cup of hot chocolate, ready to admire all the stuff that could be felted.

My family finds my affection for craft fairs baffling, and I don’t blame them. Until the still relatively recent ascent of popular craft fairs like the Urban Craft Uprising, online sources like Etsy and the reemergence of traditional crafts like knitting among urban feminists in the early-to-mid-2000s, craft appreciation hasn’t always been a particularly desirable pursuit. Before Debbie Stoller made knitting cool again, to say you loved craft fairs would be like admitting you had made small animals out of pony beads as a child, or boiled toothbrushes to make into bracelets as a rejection of your classmates’ capitalist preference for Claire’s. (I did both.)

But I’m not alone in my appreciation. According to Ana Maria King, the PNA’s marketing director, between 4,000 and 5,000 people attend the Winter Festival & Crafts Fair during its two-day run, making it something of a sleeper hit among more ostentatious holiday fare; it’s come a long way from its DIY origins. The first year, it was presented as “sort of an ‘open house, ” said King. “It was very well attended, so we decided, why not make it a fundraiser?”

The Winter Festival is just one of the region’s numerous holiday craft fairs, a pleasant, homespun alternative to all of the garish entertainments that invade our theaters and community spaces during the holiday season. I like a festive beverage and a Christmas carol as much as the next Seattle kid who grew up in a family of holiday-loving, religion-skeptical Christmas-and-Easter Unitarians. But one can only see so many productions of “A Christmas Carol” — or even “The Santaland Diaries” — before one risks mixing some existential despair into one’s holiday cheer.

But unlike the buyer’s remorse that often trails Black Friday or Cyber Monday purchases, Seattle’s craft fairs are a refreshingly noncorporate way to ring in the season. You won’t get a deal on a big-screen TV, but you’ll likely be reinvesting in your local community. Proceeds from the Winter Festival go to the Greenwood Senior Center, a tool-lending library and resources like child care and hot meals for folks in the neighborhood, among other community initiatives.

King, who happened to be wearing a hat she’d purchased at a previous Winter Festival when I stopped by unannounced on a recent weekday, said that the PNA also makes an effort to keep the festival affordable for vendors. It’s popular with them, too — each year, said King, the PNA has to turn applicants away, and keeps a waitlist of alternate sellers.

This year, 125 vendors — all from Washington — are slated to peddle their wares inside the PNA’s two buildings the first weekend of December. Of those, 87 have participated before. King says she even hears from some vendors that they get more sales out of the Winter Festival than major touring craft fairs.

And because the organization owns its space outright, the fair has relatively low overhead costs. Admission is only $2 for members and $4 for nonmembers, and attendees are encouraged to bring food-bank donations as well.

It’s a labor of love, said King, and “you can kind of feel that when you come to the event.”

A spark of holiday cheer

Like many kids raised secular, I grew up loving the holidays in an uncomplicated way. I loved singing “Silver Bells” during my elementary-school holiday assemblies. I loved going to visit my parents’ college friends, who really were family, to light candles on their menorah. I played my parents’ Bing Crosby Christmas CD until they found the repetition unlistenable. I forced my family members through repeat viewings of “How the Grinch Stole Christmas.” Though my grandmother and I weren’t always close — I’m among the younger of seven grandchildren — she was a champion with a spritz cookie press, and we could usually see eye to eye over a mixing bowl.

But as I’ve gotten older, it’s gotten harder to ignore the hard-edge truth — that for a lot of us, this time of year can be challenging. The holidays can be lonely for those who don’t have close family networks, fraught for those who do. It can be a season of impossibly high hopes for perfect family gatherings and compulsory togetherness. For introverts, for single people, for families divided over politics, it can be a minefield, a harsh collision between expectation and reality.

It’s been a long time since I could sing Christmas carols from another era without guile or self-consciousness, or listen to Bing Crosby’s croon without hearing the sorrow in it. My grandmother died my junior year of college. I don’t know what happened to the spritz cookie press.

But perhaps because it was never meant to be a big deal, or perhaps because a day spent looking but not necessarily buying remains unusual in a season marked by rampant commercial activity, a craft fair still delivers a spark of holiday joy for me. There’s a quiet subversion in a holiday event that has nothing to do with any social obligation or predetermined outcome, but instead invites discovery.

So when the Winter Festival arrives the first weekend of December, I know I’ll be walking those worn stairs at the PNA, once again reveling in the chance to see what my community is making. I’ll pay my $4, pick up my cup of coffee and make the rounds, chatting with artists here and there, and in doing so, continue a holiday tradition that’s older than I am.

Then, when I’ve seen enough, I’ll walk the few feet it takes to get home.

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Phinney Neighborhood Association 38th Annual Winter Festival & Crafts Fair, Dec. 1-2; 6532 Phinney Ave. N., Seattle; $2/PNA members, $4/nonmembers; 206-783-2244, phinneycenter.org

Other local crafts fairsSeattle area holiday events 2018: festive fairs, markets and bazaars

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An earlier version of this post contained incorrect details about the location of the PNA’s auxiliary building. It is located east of the main building.