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A CHRISTMAS MIRACLE: How I found the Spirit of Christmas on the

This Christmas started out absolutely devoid of the Christmas spirit- I was left feeling like I was in a twilight zone where Christmas didn’t exist. Sure there are a few trees up in the halls and gingerbread houses around, but it just didn’t feel like the Holidays out in the middle of the Ocean around a bunch of old people I don’t know at all! I found myself deeply missing all of my Christmas traditions, and pitying myself for being stuck doing table tennis on Christmas. I feel like I just pressed the skip button, swiftly gliding past Christmas on to another chapter. I missed so many things this year.

My Christmas starts the day after Thanksgiving, when the Champion 4 make an assembly line from the basement crawlspace to the family room- unloading bins of Christmas decorations. We play Christmas music (usually my mom’s old a cappella jazz group’s holiday CD, complete with a cameo by two year old Suzanna, “HO HO HO Mewwy Kwithmasth!”) as we set up the tree, which is all gold and red because Amy Champion decided to ditch the personal ornaments from over the years- sentimentality doesn’t match the curtains. We all have our jobs: I set up the extensive and beautiful North Pole village that my Granny Franny left to me, my dad sets up the nativity scene he hand made, Ben sets up the train around the tree and my mom lays out her antique Santa Claus collection.

My Christmas continues with Christmas movies, holiday choir concerts, shopping for presents, our annual skiing trip to the cabin, the baking day where all of the women in my family meet to bake bags and bags of traditional Pennsylvania-Dutch cookies that we freeze and eat in the month to come. Christmas is meeting up with friends who are home for the holidays, and spooning with the dogs to keep warm on the cold Colorado nights. It’s ugly Christmas sweaters and pictures on Santa’s lap.

On Christmas Eve, it’s going to church, ending the service with candles and silent night. Then as family, it’s drive around to see all of the Christmas lights in the surrounding neighborhoods. We meet my Aunt Cyndilee afterwards for Papa Murphy’s pizza (its tradition) and Ben and I put on a concert for her. We then hunker down in the chilly basement for a Christmas movie on the big-screen TV and go to bed with an anticipation of the next morning that will never change- no matter how old you are.

Christmas is waking up to John Champion cooking a grand breakfast, while a real-live crackling fire glows strong in the family room. It’s starting with our stockings and then moving on to our big present from “Santa” and our three presents from mom and dad (representing the three gifts from the wise men). It’s heading to Grandma’s for more amazing food and Christmas presents and ending the night with a big Smith-Morrison-Champion movie outing, seeing whatever movie came out that day.

Needless to say…Christmas on board looked very different. Fellow crewmembers warned me about the infamous “Christmas Cruise.” You see, the Christmas cruise gets a bad rap because by nature, you get a large handful of guests that are alone, or don’t have good relationships with their families, and in any way possible want to “escape” Christmas. Unfortunately this can bring some cynicism on board (real scrooges who aren’t afraid to tell you they “hate Christmas”) along with some strange characters…

The days leading up to this Christmas were anything but joyful or festive. They were stressful, and for some reason I had a multitude of really annoying, negative, and frustrating interactions with people on board (I think most of you saw the pregnant comment…) By Christmas Eve, I had yet to see one Christmas movie, sing a single solitary carol, had sung at a Christmas church service for about 5 people, and had spent most of the day venting with my cast about the frustrations we were having on board. I was exhausted, depressed, and Christmas-less.

I turned to Savannah at dinner and said, “I feel like I’m in a Christmas movie, and I’m in the middle of the movie where everything is going wrong, and Christmas is going to be ruined- I just need a little elf to turn everything around- I need a Christmas Miracle!”

And somehow by the work of Santa or Jesus himself, a Christmas miracle occurred- I found the spirit of Christmas in the middle of the Indian Ocean on the MS Nautica!

It started with the Holiday show that night. The four of us had been putting hours and hours this month into producing our own Christmas Show- a grand evening of singing, dancing, a full band, and string quartet. The show had been extremely stressful but once we finally got to perform, it was of course worth it! We had some really touching moments in the show, and guests left crying, and expressing how much the show gave them the Christmas spirit. It felt amazing to finally be performing material again that MEANT something! It’s been a while- but that is the whole purpose of performing, to affect people.

The spirit of Christmas continued to grow when we went backstage to find that the string quartet ladies had a surprise gift for us of wine and chocolate. And when the four of us opened a bottle of champagne Savannah and I had been saving since we first got on board and gave each other Christmas gifts, with music in the back ground.

But the true spirit of Christmas came today, in an unorthodox, unexpected way.

Christmas was an average day on board- needlepoint and ping-pong and shuffleboard, oh my! But something had been on my mind that was really bothering me- we have about 32 Solo Travelers on this cruise, and I had been thinking about some of the single guests that I had met, worried about them spending Christmas alone. I was very concerned about them not having anyone to eat dinner with. When I was running the shuffleboard tournament that afternoon, I saw one of my favorite single guests. Maybe I love this guest because his name is Dr. Bond (how cool) or because his first name is John (and he reminds me of my dad), maybe it’s because he is 85 but more agile and active then most of the 60 year olds on board, or maybe it’s the fact that he is as tan as a brown leather bag because he spent most of his life in Honolulu, Hawaii. Or maybe I love him for his sensitivity- always gentle and kind, with bright blue eyes that tear up at the drop of a hat.

I walked up to him after shuffleboard and said, “John, what are you doing for dinner?”

“Oh I’m probably going to see if they can fit me in at the steakhouse and treat myself to a nice dinner, then go to bed.”

“Well I wanted to ask you to dinner, but unfortunately I can’t go to the steakhouse- would you join me for a drink at happy hour?”

And John, instantly tearful, replied, “Why… yes that would be lovely… wow you just made my day!”

When I got to the lounge, he was clean-shaven, in a pink Hawaiian shirt. He was all smiles (and teary eyed) and asked if I would take a picture with him. “My sons told me not to take this cruise because I would be alone on Christmas, but now I can show them that I wasn’t!”

I spent the following two hours listening to the fascinating life-story of Dr. John Bond. I heard every detail from age 5 to age 85 and he painted his life so clearly I could picture it like an old black and white film. I won’t attempt retell his life to you, and it wouldn’t have any meaning to you anyway, but just know that John is an incredible man- one who fought for our country, and his own life in many ways. He has out lived two spouses, Karen and Gretchen- and even though his first wife passed almost 25 years ago and his second wife already 4 years ago, he still gets very choked up talking about them. He is on the cruise because Gretchen and him loved to take cruises together. She would walk into his office and say, hey want to go on a cruise this week? And they would just hop on a Hawaiian cruise- they went on close to 20 in their marriage. After she died, he took a cruise alone, and spread her ashes late one night into the ocean. Well his emotions, mixed with my Christmas home sickness (and no thanks to our martinis) caused us to both start boo-hooing right in the middle of the lounge!! How embarrassing! He said he was sorry to cry, and I said “Hey! I’m an actress- I’m not afraid of tears!” And then we laughed and laughed.

I think my favorite story was this one: During a big ship strike in Honolulu, which made the local economy plummet, (he said the most coveted item was toilet paper!) he was laid off. He was quickly running out of money, trying to put himself through college and had been applying for all of the open jobs in the newspaper for two months. Back then, there was a job column for men, and a column for women. He had applied to all of the male jobs to no success, and decided, “Why can’t I look in the other column?” So he did find a job… from the female column! He became an Avon representative! He paid his way through grad school selling make up to women! I thought I was going to roll on the floor laughing.

In the two-hour conversation, he told me something really important. He was telling me about his second wife Gretchen (tearfully of course) who he said was the true love of his life. She died of a neurological disease. He could tell on their last cruise together that something was wrong... when she was diagnosed she was told she would have 4-5 years to live, but the disease took her in just one. He said, “Suzanna, if you find someone really special, put as much love into them as you can. Treat them the best you can, and never take them for granted- you don’t know how long you’ll have them- they could be gone in an instant. Just love them with everything you have.”

At the end of our time he again, got teary, and then said, “You know Suzanna, you really made my Christmas. I really thought I was going to be alone, but I had a lovely evening. Thank you so much.”

And I thought, as corny as it sounds “NO DR. BOND- THANK YOU. You brought me the spirit of Christmas.” I don’t mean that in a pretentious way, at all and I really don’t mean to be cliché. And it’s not anything I haven’t heard before, but hearing it on Christmas just shocked me out of my selfishness! I was so sad to have spent this one Christmas away from home- but I’m so lucky to not be facing this holiday with the absence of a loved one.

That is the spirit of Christmas. It’s taking a day to grab the one(s) you love and squeeze them so tight they can’t breathe, simply because you’re glad they are here on Earth. I’m away from everyone I want to squeeze today, but thanks to Dr. Bond, I’m no longer moping about this Christmas-less ship… I’m on my KNEES thanking Jesus for all of my loved ones I’m blessed to still have with me.

If you are lucky enough to be with a loved one today, squeeze them- you never know how many Christmases you will get with them.

I love YOU ALL! MERRY CHRISTMAS!! May God bless you and your family on this day and fill you, no matter where you are or whom you are with, with the SPIRIT OF CHRISTMAS!

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