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For me, it always starts the moment grocery stores start displaying packages of dried bread nuggets, the stuff that stuffing is made of. That is when the excitement starts to build.

Soon the stores are overtaken by cans of pumpkin pie filling, shelves of Ambrosia chocolate, boxes of pfeffernusse, jugs of eggnog and chest freezers mounded with turkeys larger than bowling balls. Special Christmas ales line the aisles in the liquor department. And then come holidays boxes for soda, crackers and even Kleenex. Before long, the entire store is consumed by the holidays, and my fuse is lit.

But as grand as all the food is, it's the gatherings that makes this holiday season the best of the year. This is the time of year when you cannot have a family that is too big. Gregarious parties and seeing loved ones from far away, catching up with people, admiring how kids have grown and hearing the milestones punctuating their lives; that is the real food of the season. As a child, this time of year was all about the presents. As an adult, it's all about the people.

Friends from far and near come in Wednesday before Thanksgiving, and in a flash the party is under way and does not really stop until you hit Christmas and then simmers right through New Year's Day -- and longer, if you are lucky.

Sure, sumptuous wines, great football and flashy decorations lubricate the festivities, but they would mean nothing without the family and friends that make life worth living. We don't care how much you spent on decorations; we mostly want to hear the story of how you hung all the Christmas lights and found out they were all burned out and you had to take them down. We don't care what you got for a gift, but tell us the great lengths you went to find us that perfect present. Forget about how many calories are in the seven-layer Jell-O, just tell the recipe, so we can try it next year.

The ingredients for a memorable Christmas start with ebullient Thanksgiving throngs. Over the next few weeks, add in some Jimmy Stewart movies, Bob Cratchit performances and Charlie Brown animation. Sprinkle in the Mormon Tabernacle Choir, Nat King Cole and maybe a little Andy Williams and Trans-Siberian Orchestra. Throw in several dashes of donations to the red kettles and other worthy places; apply liberally where needed. Stir in some Christmas cheer, hanging of the greens, Christmas cookies, and, before the month is over, it will be, as Andy would sing, "the most wonderful time of the year."

But, as I said, it all starts with the stuffing.The bread of Christmas is in being with those you love, and if you can have that you can stuff yourself but never feel full. By the time we reach New Year's Eve and "Auld Lang Syne" becomes the tune of the hour, it's altogether fitting that we reminisce not just about the good times we have had this year with our family and friends, but in a lifetime. If you live to be 70 holiday seasons, you only get 70 chances to not forget those old acquaintances, and how fortunate we are to have known them.

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