Though I no longer live in my hometown of Amsterdam, New York, I spent my most memorable Christmas there. In 1975, I had just returned from two years in Costa Rica as a Peace Corps Volunteer. I never realized how special Christmas was until I had to spend those two years away from my family and friends.
When I went away in November of 1973, I didn’t think I would miss home that much. After all, I had lived away from Mom and Dad for four years while studying at Siena College. I found out soon enough, however, that Christmas was different.
I woke up on Christmas Day 1973 in San Jose, and I found myself thinking of Christmases past: opening presents under the tree, Mass at St. Mary’s Church, a family meal, and visits to Grandma Clary’s in the West End and Grandma LaBate’s in the East End. I wanted to see snow on the ground and hear Christmas carols. Instead, the temperature was in the 80s, and we went to see the bullfights in Zapote.
The following year, I was living in Golfito, a banana port on the Pacific side. When I wrote home before Christmas, I described my wish list. I must have been hungry at the time because I said I wanted a pizza from Russo’s, hot dogs with the works from Brownie’s, and a fresh peach sundae from Sammy Fariello’s. Needless to say, I didn’t get any of those items. Rather, I slept late and went to the beach on Christmas afternoon — a first for me.
My two-year tour of duty ended on December 1, 1975, so that meant I could travel for three weeks and still be home for Christmas. I took a bus trip through Central America for two weeks, jetted to Florida to visit old friends, and, finally, flew home on Saturday the 20th.
Unfortunately, my flight connections didn’t connect, and I arrived three hours late at the Albany Airport. Fortunately, my parents and sisters were willing to wait, and I felt at home as soon as I saw them. As we drove west on the Thruway, we caught up on each other’s lives and eagerly anticipated a very special Christmas holiday. Little did I know how soon it would occur.
Instead of going straight home, they suggested a meal at the Sleepy Dutchman Restaurant just opposite the Amsterdam exit. Sounded good to me; I was starving. When we walked in, though, I was overwhelmed.
Aunts, uncles, cousins, friends, neighbors — it seemed like anybody I had ever known was there to welcome me home and wish me a “Merry Christmas!” I was speechless.
Almost 50 years later, I still get a chill thinking about that experience. Yes, celebrating the birth of Jesus is special every year, and coming home is special any time of year. But coming home to celebrate the birth of Jesus is the best gift of all.