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We’re in the third row from the back of the Cathedral of Leon (Nicaragua). It’s 5:15 PM on Christmas Day. We were late to mass, of course – opting to finish a coffee across the street rather than hurry in when the bells began to clang. Others seemed to agree – they continued to trickle in behind us.

The priest is speaking in Latin or Spanish. I can’t tell. His words bounce off the high stone walls and transform into a garbled mess long before they reach us baptists in the  back. The front third of the congregation seem to be the only ones capable of following along. They sit, stand and kneel at the proper moments. The rest of us just take a cue from the people in front of us. The mass finishes at six – an hour on the nose. Those of us in the sweating crowd are outside in 30 seconds. We did our due and are happy to return to the plaza of ice cream vendors, trampolines, and brightly lit decorations – real Christmas cheer.

We’ve been on the road since before Halloween, meaning we’ve been gone just long enough to have missed the beginning of the Christmas season. No Black Friday. No self-help articles from the Atlantic or elsewhere on dealing with holiday stress. It’s been nice but that holiday feeling never really came.

Perhaps it is because that Christmas feeling is defined by both sides of the season – the immeasurable stress and the the immense joy – which our close family and friends bring into our lives so intensely this time of year. Swinging from Guatemala to the Honduran Island of Utila and finally to Leon, Nicaragua, we passed through towns an cities caught in perpetual summer. Residents busy preparing for the holidays but travelers like us just caught up in the sun and surf.

That is, with one exception. We escaped the traveler circuit and spent an amazing week in mid-December with the kids at Hope4Tomorrow Children’s Home in Guatemala City. Rather than next stops and cheap eats, the kids spent their time singing Christmas carols, showing us the tree (with lights!), and talking about what they hoped Santa would bring. Their Christmas was all hope and joy – the way you want it to be.

We left the cathedral of Leon, emptying into the plaza. People still milled about, buying food and drinks to take home. Kids still played on carousels and ponies. Generators still powered four different nativity scenes each depicting the night a little differently. After taking in the scene – like Dickens’ London set in the colonial tropics – we headed back toward the hostel. And Nicaragua’s biggest cock fight of the year.