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December 2009 Volume 11 , Issue 12 submit to us!

by Tiffany Jarman Jansen -- Contestant 

Christmas was Sarah's favorite holiday of the year. She loved it despite the long lines, illusive parking spots, and stifling crowds. Perhaps she even loved it because of all those things. It seemed impossible to be depressed or disgruntled at Christmas time. Children were on their best behavior, stores were decorated to the nines, Christmas music streamed through every radio frequency.

It all starts right after Halloween. Sarah always got a good giggle out of that. As soon as the kids went back to school, the Halloween decorations came out. Weeks before Halloween, they were joined by Thanksgiving paraphernalia. And before your Thanksgiving plans had been fully made, in rolled the Christmas goodies!

Thanksgiving morning, most of the local radio stations began their broken record of Christmas carols that would continue through to New Year's Eve. Sarah had cheated this year and had begun listening to a Washington, DC station that turned on the Christmas tunes as early as October 31st. To be fair, she hadn't actually tuned into the station until mid-November. There was just something about listening to Christmas cheer while children were out scaring their neighbors for candy prizes that didn't sit well with Sarah.

While there was no Christmas song that Sarah didn't like, there were relatively few that Olivier did.

"Can you please turn that stuff off?" Olivier whined after about day three, "this music is so annoying!"

Sarah sighed and changed the station. It's not that Olivier was a Scrooge; he just didn't understand the holiday the way Sarah knew it. Olivier was Dutch. He and Sarah had met through mutual friends while Olivier was on vacation in the US two years before. The friendship turned to love and the two got engaged shortly after.

Christmas was, of course, celebrated in the Netherlands, but not nearly as commercially as in the US. Instead, the Dutch went crazy (well, as crazy as the Dutch go, anyway) about Sinterklaas.

Sinterklaas is another name for Saint Nicholas and, consequently, where the name Santa Claus comes from. Sinterklaas would set sail every winter from Spain with his horse Amerigo and his helper Zwarte Piet. Children would eagerly set out their shoes or socks -- perhaps even a carrot for Amerigo -- and without fail, Sinterklaas would come every 5th of December and fill them up with toys and candy.

Christmas, as far as Olivier was concerned, was just another paid vacation day from work. But he was a good sport about it, helping Sarah do her shopping and gift-wrapping. They'd ooh and ahh at the lights adorning the houses as they drove through the neighborhood. Sarah could even get him to listen to some holiday tunes from WHAM, Elvis, and a few others.

The week after Olivier arrived was filled with last minute preparations. Presents had to be wrapped, the dress had to be picked up, Sarah's bags needed to be packed, Max needed his health certificate from the vet, and the honeymoon had to be booked. Thanksgiving weekend, Olivier and Sarah were married and off on their honeymoon to New York City.

Now, anyone who's ever been to NYC over the holidays knows that the whole town goes on Christmas overload. For Sarah, this was a week of Christmas heaven with her new husband. They saw the Rockettes perform their Christmas show, watched the tree at Rockefeller plaza light up, saw the window displays at Macy's and Sax 5th Avenue, and reveled in a tinsel covered tinsel town.

It was when their plane landed at Schipol airport in Amsterdam that everything changed. Yes, there were decorations and carols and shoppers and holiday treats, but it was all so different. Only about every fifth song on the radio was a Christmas tune. Many were in Dutch and the rest included only those songs written from the 80s onward.

Santas, snowmen, reindeer: all the characters of Christmas so familiar to Sarah were overshadowed by those of her new country. Decorations were simple. Beautiful, but plain and sparse. And long lines of impatient children eager to sit on Santa's lap and tell him of their Christmas wishes were nowhere to be found. Gone were the Salvation Army volunteers standing outside the stores with their bells. And the stockings, hung by the chimney with care were replaced with socks and shoes.

Most of all Christmas was a time for family. This year -- for the first time in her life -- Sarah would be celebrating Christmas without hers. It was this that hurt most of all. Sarah was never one to thrive on routine. In fact, the idea of doing the same things with the same people in the same place day in and day out was enough to make Sarah want to tear her hair out. But Christmas was different.

It all started on Christmas Eve. Sarah's mother would prepare a delicious spread of potato casserole, sweet potato pudding, ham, and boiled carrots. After that, everyone would put on their Sunday best and the family would make its annual pilgrimage to church for the Christmas Eve service. At the end of the service Sarah and her brother Sam would go to the altar to collect the poinsettias their mother ordered in honor of various family members. Meanwhile, their mother went on to fellow parishioners about who-even-knows-what as their father stood tall and politely silent behind her.

Then the family would drive back home for eggnog and homemade cookies. Later in the evening, Sarah and Sam would exchange one gift between the two of them. Next, everyone would get into their PJs and come back together to watch a Christmas classic. The last thing to be done before bed was to set out a glass of cold milk and a plate of cookies for Santa and a plump orange carrot for Rudolph.

At 6 o'clock in the morning, without fail, Sam would creep into Sarah's bedroom and wake her. Santa had come! The two siblings would race down the stairs and gaze at the wondrous display. By the light of the tree, they could see all the wrapped gifts had been sorted and placed in just the right spots: Sarah's gifts on the loveseat, Sam's on the chair by the fireplace and Mom and Dad's in their own little piles on the coffee table in front of the couch. All four stockings were bursting at the seams, filled with goodies and the gifts from Santa were scattered throughout the room. Sam and Sarah would spend the next hour babbling on to each other in excitement over their gifts from Santa.

As soon as the old grandfather clock struck 7, they'd run upstairs and drag their parents out of bed. The whole family would go downstairs together and begin tearing at wrapping paper, littering the floor with Santas, snowmen, snowflakes, and reindeer as they went. Once the gift giving was over, Mom would begin making breakfast as Dad set to work assembling gifts and Sarah and Sam put their new things to use.

A fantastic smorgasbord of waffles, pancakes, sausages, and bacon was enjoyed before everyone set to cleaning up the Christmas debris. Then, it was off to Grandma's for Christmas with the extended family. And the soundtrack to the journey there and back was, of course, comprised of Christmas carols with the whole family singing along.

That was the way it had always been. From as long ago as Sarah could remember right up to the year she met Olivier. Last year. Not only would none of that happen this year, Sarah was also a whole ocean away from her family.

Olivier did what he could to fill the void. He wrestled with the Christmas tree, hung up the stockings, and listened to more Christmas music than he ever thought he could handle. He did his best to put up with Max and to overlook the shopping bags full of ridiculous Christmas paraphernalia that Sarah would bring home.

Although her new husband's efforts touched her deeply and made her love him all the more, it still just wasn't the same. Was it the distance from her family? The new and different traditions surrounding her most treasured holiday? Or simply one of the many pains of growing up? Whatever it was, it left her feeling a bit empty.

On Christmas Eve, Sarah and Max tried to fill up the day while Olivier was at work. They went for a walk and cuddled on the floor listening to Christmas music. For the sake of holding onto at least one family tradition, they watched the old, claymation version of Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer (no point watching it with Olivier as the movie had put him to sleep both times they had tried to watch it before). Sarah found a great Christmas Eve dinner recipe and spent a good hour in the supermarket, Dutch-English dictionary in hand, searching for the ingredients. By the time Olivier got home, dinner was ready and a sheet of freshly baked Christmas cookies was cooling on the kitchen counter.

Later that evening, they broke open a bottle of wine and reclined on the couch admiring the Christmas tree.

"I know it's not Christmas yet," Olivier said, breaking the reflective silence, "but I just can't wait."

With that he stood up, walked over to the tree and produced a small, beautifully wrapped box. Sarah accepted it, tears forming in her eyes. Knowingly or not, Olivier had kept one of Sarah's most treasured Christmas traditions. The Christmas Eve gift exchange. She carefully opened the box.

What she saw made her draw her breath in. Inside was a gorgeous silver-colored pearl set in a bright silver band with matching earrings. In a mist of emotion and gratitude, Sarah began to sob. Olivier held her for a moment before getting up to get a CD from the cabinet next to the couch. The next sound Sarah heard was Elvis' deep, tender voice singing I'm Dreaming of a White Christmas.

And that's how they spent their first Christmas Eve together: listening to Christmas carols and gazing at a bright, overly-decorated tree, holding onto old traditions and, at the same time, making new ones.

The next morning, Olivier stormed into the bedroom.

"Get up!" he shouted, "I want to open presents!"

Sarah rolled over sleepily and glanced at the bedside clock. 9 am! She had never slept this late on a Christmas morning. But she had to admit, it was kind of nice. She climbed out of bed, put on her robe and slippers, and stepped out of the bedroom with Max in tow.

Olivier had already divided the gifts into piles, one for each recipient. Sarah took a seat on the floor next to him. He handed her pile of presents to her and the two began tearing at wrapping paper, littering the floor with Sinterklaases, Zwarte Pieten, snowmen and snowflakes as they went.

Once all the gifts had been opened and ogled over, Sarah padded into the kitchen to make breakfast while Olivier cleaned up and began assembling the gifts that needed to be put together. After breakfast, they began a Guitar Hero playoff using the two-player set they got for Christmas. Suddenly, the phone rang. It was Sarah's mother.

"Turn on your computer and sign onto Skype," she demanded before hanging up.

Sarah turned to find Olivier standing behind her with her laptop on and ready. As soon as she signed onto Skype, an incoming call from her mother popped up on the screen.

"Merry Christmas!" her mother chirped on the other end.

And as the video feature came to life, Sarah saw them all. Mom, Dad, and Sam were all huddled around the computer screen. Behind them were stacks of Christmas presents, one for each of them. Before she could blink, Olivier had reappeared with a box of unopened presents. Olivier and her mother had arranged to have all gifts from Sarah's family sent to the Netherlands and all the gifts from Sarah and Olivier sent to the US. Even though they were thousands of miles apart, there they were having Christmas together.

Who can say what this year will bring. Who knows what traditions will stay the same and which will give way to new ones. You may spend Christmas together or you may be worlds apart. But no matter where you are, the spirit of Christmas will find you. No matter how things may change, Christmas will always remain the same.

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