Our time in Houston marked a halfway point for our Great Southern Escapade. We had traveled two thousand miles through rain, down narrow roads, and across unfamiliar terrain. But all of it was well worth the reward: The sights, the food, the experiences, and of course, getting to see family – in my case – for the first time.

And what better way to first meet family than during the holidays? I get that doesn’t apply to everyone’s experience, but I had a feeling that our being in Houston would make Christmas for Becca’s sister and niece even more special.

We took our time getting up on Christmas Day, not beholden to any schedule or real plan. As we stepped outside to go get Starbucks breakfast to bring back to the apartment, we got smacked in the face by a heatwave. The thermometer read eighty degrees at almost ten in the morning. We of the North think of white Christmases, during which we clutch cups of hot chocolate for warmth and sit around a roaring fire that masks the chill creeping in through the old windows of our quaint little homes.

But in the South, forget it. You can wear a T-shirt and shorts on Christmas Day if you want. You might as well put on sunscreen. I couldn’t remember a time when I ever sweat on Christmas, but there’s a first time for everything.

Becca and I brought bags of Starbucks back to her sister and niece, along with all of the presents we bought for them back in Brooklyn. This kid had piles of presents waiting for her under the tree, and I gotta be honest, I felt a little jealous. Hanukkah drags out the process. Sometimes as a kid I just wanted that insane rush of joy seeing a stack of boxes all for me, which I got to open all at once. Nowadays I like the suspense. I guess that comes with age.

When you get older, the joy of the holiday tends to fade. You get a bit jaded. Becca and I celebrated Hanukkah in our apartment and lit the menorah every night, but she had to work some evenings leaving us to do some virtual lightings. I’m sure parents get worn down from the holidays, what with the preparations and the cooking and the guests and the gifts and the capitalism of it all. But sometimes you see the joy on a kid’s face when they get a gift or get some kind of treat, no matter how big or small, and it reminds you why holidays matter in the first place. The origin of the day doesn’t matter. It’s all about who you spend it with and how you spend it.

For our Christmas day, we all opened presents and housed pastries while setting up our Disney+ so that Becca’s niece could watch Ron’s Gone Wrong. You’d think that we’d introduced her to Jesus when we got it working. She sat fixed to the TV while Becca and I caught up with Becca’s sister and made good friends with their cat and two dogs, who loved torturing one another.

After spending some good quality time with family, Becca and I took a quick nap, for even though we didn’t do anything but sit and eat carbs all morning, the holiday cheer left us a little exhausted. At around 6:00, we reconvened and went down the road to The Hunan, a Chinese food place that Becca’s sister swore by, for the traditional Christmas meal. The place was packed, and I appreciated that the phenomenon of eating Chinese food on Christmas had spread to the mainstream. (You who cook a grand feast on Christmas: Why? Stop it. Get some help.)

Dinner led into more driving around Houston to look at lights in the more upscale suburbs of the city. Driving around Houston makes the city’s vastness seem infinite. It’s the country’s largest city by total area and its fourth-most populous city. Coming from New York, Becca and I are used to millions of people crammed together on an island, filing in and out of buildings that rise high into the sky to house residents and visitors and workers. To see such immense urban sprawl in the flesh comes as a sort of culture shock. The only other city that could cause such a feeling is Los Angeles, I think. We’ll make the trip that far west someday.

We got back to the apartment somewhat early, as we had more exploring around Houston in store for the day after Christmas. It felt good to celebrate the holiday with family, especially family members who didn’t live close to us. After missing out on so much during the holiday season of 2020 that wasn’t, we took our vaxxed and boosted selves down south – despite rising case numbers – because we needed to make the trip happen. We needed to fulfill the promise of seeing the people we loved and hadn’t seen in so long. We’d done all we could to stave off getting sick, and we figured that the time was right to take a leap. A reasonable, careful leap, yes, but a leap nonetheless.

I hope you got to spend your holidays in a bit of a better way than you did last year. And if you stayed in again, that’s good too. I’m hoping that sooner rather than later, we won’t have to worry so much about getting sick from family gatherings, that we can go back out and celebrate without fear of something we can’t see creeping up on us.