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  • Have you noticed that the Christmas season starts earlier and earlier every year? What used to be the end of the Thanksgivings Day Parade has now been been moved unofficially to the day after Halloween. Christmas is now a two month long season. Though some people might complain, I couldn't be happier.

    Christmas has always been a big deal in my family. My parents learned from their parents, I learned from mine, and my children will learn from me one day. It's not something that can just be defined or quantified. I myself have found a new appreciation of the holiday every year. This past year in particular was one that I will undoubtedly never forget, for I learned the true meaning of Christmas.

    As alluded to above, I am on the early side of celebrating the season. From decorating the house in preparation for Thanksgiving, to watching a stack of Christmas movies over and over and over. Were it up to me, Christmas would be a year long countdown.

    Even as a child with no conception of time, I knew there was something special about Christmastime. On Christmas Eve I would shake with excitement for the day ahead (some might say I still shake). Christmas would start with presents from Santa, a phone call to my cousin Jimmy to see what he got for Christmas, a big breakfast, followed by a trip to my Nana's house where all of the cousins, aunts, uncles, and grandparents would join in celebrating. Lots of laughs, running around, and the occasional tear being shed from getting a finger caught on the pool table while a ball hit the rail. It was 24 hours of absolute bliss.

    Every Christmas is different, and that can certainly be said of this past Christmas.

    I awoke early on Christmas Morning, per usual around five or six, but something wasn't right. Was it excitement? No, it was different. Then it hit me. I was sick.

    Just like the father in Clement Clark Moore's poem, I, "sprang from my bed to see what was the matter." Only I didn't go to the window. No, it was the bathroom. I will spare you the details of what followed. Needless to say, I was sick as a dog. My brother had fallen ill the night before, Christmas Eve, including a trip to the hospital to get some IV fluids put back into his system. My father, though not hit heavily with the virus, was still aching and bedridden. There are 365 days in the year and the ONE day we all got a stomach bug is the ONE day I literally count down the seconds to.

    I laid on the couch until about eight o'clock. Feeling like my stomach had calmed down, we all gathered in the living room to exchange presents. Normally I am the first to finish, racing through my presents and tearing the wrapping paper off as if my gifts were on fire. This year I was last, taking my time with each one, trying to keep it together. After the first few presents the mood livened up a bit and Christmas regained a bit of normalcy. When the gift giving was done, we returned to our places of rest. Normally a large breakfast is had, but nobody had the stomach for it.

    Then I had to do one of the hardest things I've ever done. Talk to my cousin Jimmy. Now to call Jimmy a "fan," of Christmas is like calling the Pacific Ocean a kiddie pool. He has more Christmas spirit than anybody I know. When he called my stomach sank. I couldn't bare tell him the news. We exchanged pleasantries and gave a brief description of what we received. He finished with his excitement for the Christmas party, and I almost didn't have the heart to tell him I would be unable to attend. I broke the news, and there was a pause, almost as if it didn't register. There was a tone in his voice that I won't soon forget.

    "What?" he said.

    I told him the Withrow boys were down and we wouldn't make it to the party. He wished us well and we ended the call, but we both knew that Christmas was not going to be the same this year.

    I feel back asleep and awoke to my mother and Christina preparing to leave for the Christmas party. I received word that we were not the only victims of the stomach bug. Another cousin and uncle had fallen claim to it's debilitating effects. The "body count," continued to rise with about 6 people out of commission and unable to attend the festivities. My mother and Christina said goodbye and promised to be back as soon as possible. The door shut and the three sickly Withrow men took their places in front of the television.

    Seizing the large time chunk we had in front of us, I spearheaded a movement to watch The Dark Knight Rises. Perhaps seeing Batman in action would give us the strength to persevere. I popped in the movie, raised an invisible glass to toast the "Withrow Men Christmas," and watched the movie.

    I periodically received updates from the party in the form of a video or text message with tidbits of information. I eventually received a phone call from my cousin Eric who wanted to put me on Speaker for the "Vanutowith Air Hockey Tournament," (the name is a combination of Vanaria, Venuto, and Withrow, the three families that vie for the coveted trophy). It was a very nice gesture and helped lift my spirits. Then I got a phone call from Christina as the cousins were about to participate in the "Yankee Swap." Our cards were brought and our numbers drawn. She did an excellent job walking my brother and I through the swap. The swap ended and with it the party did as well.

    As I waited for the ladies to return, I was overcome with a feeling of sadness, then anger and frustration. All the planning, wrapping, singing, watching, and waiting had boiled down to a stomach bug and Christmas on the couch. I looked at my gifts and closed my eyes. I saw flashes of Christmas past and all the fun we had. I opened my eyes again and the presents were still there. I felt like the Grinch. I had all the plunder from Christmas morning but was left feeling somewhat empty. To quote Dr. Seuss:

    "Maybe Christmas, he thought, doesn't come from a store.
    Maybe Christmas, perhaps, means a little bit more."

    Now, I have known all my life that there is more to Christmas than Santa and presents, but this was the first time I had come face to face with the fact. At first I was angry, but then I was remembered all the nice moments that I had throughout the day. The phone calls, texts, pictures, presents, prayers, everything. I was thankful for my family and all that I had.

    Christina and my mother came home and checked on how we were doing. I was glad they were back. The house felt more like home with everyone in it. Then, like the Grinch about to dump his sleigh over side of Mt. Crumpit, I paused.

    Then there came a voice.

    No, there were two voices.

    And they were singing.

    I looked around in confusion, then a familiar face appeared at the window. It was my cousin Jimmy and my Auntie Jackie. They were singing outside the house. I ran as fast as I could and threw open the door. There they stood in the chill of the late December air singing my favorite Christmas song, "The Christmas Song." They went through the entire song, chestnuts and all. Everyone was at the door now, watching those two sing to their heart's delight. I wish I could have hugged them, but rather than contaminate another family, we waved, thanked them, and wished them a Merry Christmas.

    I soon retired and drifted off to sleep, but not with sugar plums dancing in my head. I was replaying the events of the day and how sour everything began, yet ended so sweetly. I was reminded of all the fun I had over the past two months not just decorating, shopping, and eating good food, but for all the places I went to and the people I spent time with.

    "And that's what Christmas is all about, Charlie Brown."
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