This was the first Christmas that I didn't get a chance to see It's a Wonderful Life, my favorite movie of all time.
It was the first time in my life I received only two presents, a wallet and my Secret Santa gift.
It was one of the few years where I didn't have the chance to enjoy stollen, one of my favorite desserts of all time.
It was the rare year where my family didn't have oplatki, the Polish wafer that we share as a blessing on Christmas.
And it was the first time my Grandma, eighty-two years old next January, spent the holiday in the hospital.
Kinda odd then that I'd rank this Christmas as one of my best ever.
But it was.
It was certainly not because of any of those things, but there was a different air about this Christmas. My parent's traditional Christmas Eve celebration, which I feared would be melancholy without my Grandma, went off without a hitch. It was a more subdued atmosphere but also more relaxed. Instead of the usual hustle and bustle we opened presents in order, from youngest to oldest. By the time the kids were done they'd wandered off to play in the other room, leaving the adults time to linger and talk.
Imagine that: pleasant conversation at a family gathering. Truly a season of miracles.
It went so well that by the time we were back home the Christmas spirit was just warming up. Since we have no fireplace, my wife made a special key that we hung on the door for Santa. The kids held up their end of the bargain with the big guy by setting out milk and cookies, and at my oldest's insistence, a bowl of water for the reindeer.
It was once they were asleep that I may, in retrospect, have gone a little too far.
I tried to create Santa footprints from the door to the tree and back again. You'd think that wouldn't be a problem in Milwaukee, where there's no such thing as a floor free of road salt and snow, but it was too cold for my shoes to pick up any of the old standbys. So I tried my daughter's watercolors, which did nothing but create a mess. I tried used coffee grounds and then cherry kool-aid, Nothing.
Finally, I did the only sensible thing. No, I didn’t quit - I surfed the net. Thanks to a friend, in minutes there were baby powder tracks across my freshly scrubbed floor.
Naturally, my kids didn't seem to care. And while they were gracious about it, our presents fizzled - except for that three-foot tall Elmo. It's our fault. We made the mistake of sandwiching our gifts between the night at Grandma's and Christmas breakfast with Grandpa. That's like expecting me to watch both halves of the Super Bowl and call the halftime show my favorite part.
Next year, our gifts are being handed out on the 23rd.
We ended the day with a visit to the hospital. Thankfully my Grandma was in good spirits and so were the kids. Our oldest recited her ABC's, 123's and prayers so well that we rewarded her with a gift of her own choosing - some 99¢ Barbie coins that she treated like gold.
Now there's still a chance things can go wrong. Tomorrow my mother-in-law's side of the family is coming over for a Christmas brunch, all sorts of stuff could happen. But I think we're safe.
Because his year It's a Wonderful Life seems to be more than just a movie title.