You can ask pretty much anyone who knows me even just in passing, the Christmas season is my all time favorite part of the year. As I would assume is probably true for most lovers of the holiday season, the deep affection probably stems from a childhood filled with pleasant memories. Looking back for me, it started with the beauty in the sights and sounds of the season. Christmas decorations adorning every corner of the house. A tree trimmed on every inch with lights, decorations and ornaments that each meant something special. Christmas music that would play seemingly non-stop on the radio stations filling the air with reminders of the time of year. Although, I do remember as children, my sister and I were in love with the "Chipmunks Christmas Carols" on cassette tape that we would demand our patents play over and over and over, everywhere we drove. In retrospect I'm not sure how they didn't magically "lose" the tape, or us for that matter. But perhaps that was a factor in some of the high tensions experienced while running errands and present shopping... And at a young age, who didn't love the presents we all received on Christmas morning. The amazement and wonder of Santa remembering that gift you wanted so badly but your parents said was "sold out".
As I grew older the things I appreciated from the season changed and grew. I became aware and appreciative of the temperature change that came with the time of year and the brisk air that filled your lungs. A subtle reminder that snow was just around the corner. For me, there are few things in this world as beautiful as the sight of a freshly fallen snow. I could easily sit for hours and just watch the flakes fall out the window (it is currently snowing as I write this and I am pleasantly distracted). Gift giving became far more enjoyable than gift receiving. I also became aware that people's attitudes shifted just slightly to the positive across the board. A feeling of widespread friendliness fell upon the area along with pausing to celebrate the season with friends and family. One of my most fond memories was of the last day of high school before Christmas break began. It was a given that no teacher was actually going to teach that day. Instead each class was spent having a little party, sharing treats, watching a Christmas movie or perhaps even just relaxing and enjoying some quality time with your friends. Now anyone close to me knows I despised high school as I was unpopular and treated quite poorly by the majority of my classmates (details for another post). But for that one day, I have only consistent positive memories.
In the years following high school, I began to notice a shift in things around the holidays. It started to become a chore to decorate and partake in the activities that used to define the holidays for me. People were seemingly grumpier across the board and getting friends and family together was becoming increasingly difficult. The magic of the holidays was slowly fading. I yearned for happy Christmas mornings and a full week of fun days with my family on the days between Christmas and New Years. As a family we had stopped going to some of our regular seasonal gatherings and the meals on Christmas day became smaller and more simplistic. As it turns out, we'd only have two more Christmases after high school for me with all 4 of us together. In the summer of 2005 my mother would run off with another man, leaving her entire family behind. She would never be missed around the holidays, or any other season for that matter. But Christmas as I knew it was changing and it was time I learned to adapt.
Our family traditions would change and I learned to be more flexible with my expectations on the season and found different things to love in the coming Christmases in PA. I did not miss a single one up till the Christmas of 2012 after I had moved to Los Angeles full time. This first Christmas away from home was a tough one. I was dirt broke poor, chasing an Olympic dream and living in a tiny like 250 square foot apartment. I wasn't able to decorate properly and the meal I made on Christmas day left much to be desired. Add to that the warm weather and the abundance of palm trees, and I was left feeling like a fish out of water. That first year was the toughest and thank goodness I had my pup Dunkin. In the years that followed, things began to improve. I found an amazing house to live in and someone incredible to share it with, Missy and her pup Eva. I was able to decorate and we began Christmas traditions of our own. I would always yearn for the cool weather and feelings that could only come from a PA holiday season. But I had began to realize that the truly important part of the season was who you shared it with.
In spring of 2016 we would move our lives and all now 4 of our pups back to my home town in PA. We found an amazing historic farm house from the mid 1800's and settled in to our new home. While we would have 2 months of spring, all of summer and fall before the holiday season arrived, I still remember discussing with Missy on our first day in the new house, where our Christmas tree(s) would be going. Then, in what seemed like an instant, the holiday's were upon us. I did my best to pull off a true Clark Griswald level of exterior decorating, but I only managed about 1/2 of what I had originally envisioned. As it turns out, cold weather, rain and really steeply pitched roofs don't mesh well. Missy lovingly covered the inside of the house with holiday decorations in every corner and even got every single dog their own Christmas sweater (not at all joking). I became unable to hide a smile everywhere I walked and turned inside the house or upon approaching it while driving home. I could feel the warm loving feeling of the holidays returning for the first time in over a decade. But the real icing on the cake was the people you spend it with.
After racing concludes here in T-town, it instantly becomes a chore to see friends you'd otherwise see 2-3x per day at the track in the summer. So we threw our first get-together since moving back by hosting an ugly Christmas sweater party. It was amazing to have over 20 friends over in our home at once. It marked the return of the friendly faces and laugher I was accustomed to growing up. Great friends and my signature holiday punch combined with a little game of Cards Against Humanity left us all a little sore from laughing so much. For only a week's notice of the party, and doing all of the food shopping and preparations day of, it proved a truly unforgettable night for me that filled a void that had been missing since the day before break celebrations in high school. A party that I can confidently say will become a new tradition for us!
But the real moments that made the whole holiday complete for me was Christmas eve/day. We awoke Christmas eve to two tiny smiling faces climbing in to bed with us to start our morning. My nieces, who are 3 and 6 years old, had spent the night at our house in my custom made bunk beds complete with "stars" (christmas lights under the top bunk on a dimmer switch). Everything about their visit made us smile. From the joy on their faces as I prepared their pancakes, to the way our youngest pup guarded their bed and their room all night long. There is a joy of being an uncle that you can't understand until you experience it and this was one of the best parts yet. Later on this same day, I would severely sprain my ankle chasing our oldest pup, Daisy, inside from the rain. With most doctor offices already closed for the Christmas holiday, I go so lucky to receive a little Christmas miracle. A long time friend and old team mate Dr. Neal Stansbury (who fixed my broken collar bone when I was 17, drove in to his office while out running errands on Christmas Eve, just to take a look at my ankle. I will never stop being grateful for Neal's generosity and good will when it comes to myself and every other athlete who sees him. A ankle brace, crutches and a few painkillers later, Neal really did save my Christmas!
On Christmas day though we started what I hope will become a new lasting tradition. Typically on Christmas day my family typically all celebrates individually. My grandparents, aunt and uncle all get together on Christmas Eve for dinner. But on Christmas day everyone stays at home. Come Christmas morning, Missy and I got up and enjoyed our own gift opening along with the puppies who all had plenty of treats of their own to open. In the afternoon though we invited all of my family over for the big Christmas meal. This was our first Christmas in PA and we were hosting. If you know my extended family at all, you'll know this is a potentially insane move. But it was a truly perfect day. The food was amazing and the company was even better. I have not such felt a warm and loving feeling in the place I live since I was so young I still believed in Santa. When you're hosting a gathering with my family, it's easy to feel like you're constantly moving. But on this day I actually took a moment to step back and soak in the amazing energy all around me. The adults at the table playing cards, the kids running around playing with their toys and the dogs lazily strewn across the dining room floor on the off chance someone might drop a cracker or pretzel. It was in this moment that I felt as though everything that had been missing from the holiday season for me had finally returned. Surrounded by the love of all of my family, in a home prepared by myself and the woman I love, in the town and the climate I grew up in: I was finally home for the holidays again.