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There are holidays, and then there are The Holidays.

Memorial Day kicks off the summer; the Fourth of July is all patriotic with parades and fireworks; Labor Day is the last break before fall begins. But the time between Thanksgiving and New Year's is something special, and it was something special long before corporate American co-opted it for big sales and big bucks.

Certainly, my family always treated it as something special. I can still remember the smells of my grandmother cooking the foods of the season, going out to get a Christmas tree, having everyone around for both Thanksgiving and Christmas and trying to convince my parents it was OK for me to stay up late on New Year's Eve. In my mind (in my heart, too), things haven't changed much, even though I get a little grumpy when Christmas ads and decorations start turning up before Halloween (it may be a bit of an exaggeration, but I swear Target ran its first holiday ad around Labor Day).

By nature, I am something of a cynic, so why do I get so caught up in The Holidays? Let me count the ways:

  • The Tree: I put it on my calendar as soon as ... well, I get my calendar: First Sunday in December, put up tree. Over the years, my late wife collected an array of ornaments, with my daughter kicking in a few, too. We made a point of having at least one new ornament every season, so the selection now runs from the very traditional to Motorcycle Barbie and Taz from Looney Tunes.

    A few seasons back, we saw an incredibly real-looking artificial tree and made a switch we swore we'd never make. But the fake tree really hasn't mitigated the joy of putting up the tree with seasonal music playing.


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  • The Music: Speaking of music, is there any holiday season with such a wide and wonderful array of songs and hymns? (Quick, name a Labor Day song.) I still get a tear in my eye if "White Christmas" or "Have Yourself a Merry Little Christmas" comes on at the right moment. And the experience of hearing and singing a hymn like "Silent Night" in a crowded church is truly a joyous noise.

  • The City Lights: All the cities I have lived in looked their best during The Holidays with glittering lights and streets crowded with people. San Jose, where I currently live, is never more alive than it is from late November through the end of December. Often, I walk the streets on a holiday just to soak in the good spirits.

  • The Food: It's not just the taste of holiday food but the smells and the process of either making the meal together as a family or preparing it as a treat for those joining you for the day. Turkey, cranberry sauce, sweet potatoes and stuffing. What's not to like?

  • Eggnog: Would you really go anywhere near the richness of eggnog any other time of the year? Probably not. But it tastes great when you're sitting in the living room with the tree all ablaze with lights and a fire in the fireplace.

  • Naps: This goes along with food and eggnog. It's the one time of year when no one thinks twice if you say, "I'm going to take a short nap," or you simply nod off in the front of the TV watching football. Sweet.

  • The "Cajun Night Before Christmas": I first heard James Rice's "Cajun Night Before Christmas" when I lived in Washington, D.C., and a Louisiana-born friend would always read it during the holidays. It's a wonderfully witty take on the traditional poem: "Den Mama in de fireplace done roas' us de ham, stir up de gumbo, an' make de baked yam. Den out on de bayou dey got such a clatter. Make soun' like old Boudreaux done fall off his ladder." My friend could give a dramatic reading with an accent right out of the bayou that I can't mimic, but I still read it to myself every Christmas.

  • "Love Actually": When, precisely, did a modern British rom-com start to challenge "It's A Wonderful Life" as the ultimate holiday movie? Well, it has -- and not just in my house. The film, which I usually watch on Christmas Eve, just happens to be set during the holidays, but it's all about love and family, served up with a sharp wit and just enough edge to avoid the mawkish. Plus, there's a terrific version of "All I Want for Christmas Is You" toward the end.

  • Family and friends: This almost goes without saying. It's a time of year to gather together, give thanks, share the love and revel in the presence of "those who are dear to us." Sure, there is the occasional drama, but I can live with those moments to savor all the rest.

    So here's to The Holidays and all they really mean, and to paraphrase Irving Berlin, may your holidays be merry and bright.

    Follow Charlie McCollum at Twitter.com/charlie_mccollu.