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East County Friday, Nov. 23, 2018 6 months ago

How I Sleigh Christmas

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While your stockings were hung by the chimney with care, I was out in Lakewood Ranch upping my Santa game.
by: Columnist Columnist

By Gabriel Jiva | Contributor

When I was a kid, Christmases were wonderful. We would get a tree on a Saturday in mid-December, spend the evening decorating it, put up some outdoor decorations and catch whatever Christmas flick was on TV — “Frosty the Snowman” and “Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer,” the usual merry fare. 

Gabriel Jiva, Riverwalk resident and dad to sons Alexander, 4, (above) and Frederick, 2 months

In the car, we’d turn up the volume on the same loop of infectious tunes that played every day for three weeks leading up to Dec. 25. Maybe we’d visit the Christmas village at the mall. Sit on Santa’s lap. Ask for a Transformer. Go home. Drink Hi-C. Mess with a Rubik’s Cube. It was a simpler pre-Elf on the Shelf era. 

On Christmas Eve, we would watch “It’s a Wonderful Life,” and I would stay up until carolers from our church came a-wassailing by the house, at which point my family would give them desserts. (I wonder why the tradition of giving carolers beer, moldy cheese, and Christmas loaf died out?) 

When I became a teenager, I joined the carolers and soon learned the length of caroling was roughly proportional to the spread provided.

Now that I have small kids, I realize the importance of these warm and cozy memories. They are the mental comfort food we turn to when we’re overwhelmed by adulting. Because of this, my wife and I (and seemingly every other parent in Lakewood Ranch) go to great lengths to manufacture the same holiday cheer for our kids.

Yes, it’s a great diversion from having to be boring the other 11 months of the year. Mortgages, roof repairs, doctors’ appointments, watching what you eat and keeping current on your social media accounts is taxing. It’s no surprise Christmas these days is on another level. What better way to escape real life in 2018 than to go full-bore on the festive?

This year, like last year, we’re planning on pretty much doing something Christmassy with the kids every weekend. First up: buying the Christmas tree the day after Black Friday, otherwise known as Small Business Saturday because you don’t buy something from a small business on Monday because that day is relegated to online shopping. (Insider’s tip: If you’re looking for a Christmas tree lot,  St. Barbara Greek Orthodox Church on Lockwood Ridge has a great one.)

The Greek Orthodox tree is our main tree because my wife, who doesn’t love real tannenbaums, also decorates her grandmother’s 50-year-old artificial fir and the 2-foot Charlie Brown tree that sits on our son’s dresser.

On the first weekend in December, we go to The Florida Railroad Museum in Parrish to ride the North Pole Express. This is a real train to a fake North Pole. Perhaps the experience is meant to demonstrate what the North Pole Express might look like after centuries of climate change turn the arctic into the west coast of Florida. Nonetheless, it’s a fantastical Christmas village with all kinds of activities for kids, including a light maze, making reindeer food and eating s’mores on hay bales around a real wood fire. Oh, and the best Santa, who holds court in the best Santa living room ever.

Alexander Jiva with Santa

The following weekend, we’ll probably eat lunch with Santa at MacAllisters Grill & Tavern. This Santa, like most Santas, isn’t overly toddler-friendly. The first time we took our oldest son to MacAllisters to see this Santa, he was terrified of the guy. Now that he has a little brother, we’re looking forward to seeing him succumb to the horror again as we pass his infant brother to a strange old man in a red onesie.

My wife is part of the Lakewood Ranch Moms Group, which is a great resource for any mom in the community. In addition to organizing nights out, running book clubs and recommending plumbers, the group rents a venue each December with great holiday ambiance and hires a top-notch Santa to dole out toys to your kids. Each present is purchased by you prior to the event, but your little cherub doesn’t know this when he sits down to schmooze Kris Kringle. Trust me when I say watching the perfect gift manifest before children’s eyes is magical. 

In between all this, my family fits in the ordinary stuff I used to do as a kid. We watch all the Christmas movies and specials on all the streaming platforms. We go to Sarasota Jungle Gardens to see the lights and to Marie Selby Botanical Gardens because their lights are better. We attend the tree lighting on Lakewood Ranch Main Street and muster the fortitude to wait in line for the Santa who set up camp Nov. 9 at the Mall at University Town Center … because in Lakewood Ranch it’s never too soon to kick off Christmas.

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