Visitors walk along a path to enjoy the annual Holiday Nights event at Tohono Chul Park located at 7366 North Paseo Del Norte in Tucson, Arizona, November 2013. 

Mamta Popat / Arizona Daily Star

Editor's note: Kathleen Bethel and her family started Winterhaven's Wishing Tree 18 years ago as a seventh-grade science project. The tree has since grown into a Tucson tradition. Bethel wrote this piece on what makes Tucson home during the holidays. 

At this time of year, Tucson’s unique qualities become clear. 

Visiting families come craving the smell of enchilada sauce simmering on the stove in the morning and tamales steaming in the oven. It's the olive hidden in the red chile beef that lets us know it’s Christmas in Tucson. 

Deciding on which of Tucson’s favorite restaurants is a subject for debate. Whichever we choose, we’ll be greeted with a large glass of water, even without asking. A bowl of chips and salsa usually follow. Again, without asking. After all, this is Tucson. 

There is just something about Tucson. You can feel its heart, wherever you go. Smiles are the norm here. And if someone does not have one, it’s easy to give them one of yours, often only to see it returned immediately. It’s a friendly town. A small town. 

Even the pot holes are ours. We know them by name by now – having helped create them as we travel the same route each morning. 

Frantically shopping for the people we forgot to put on our list is where Tucson shines. Gifts can be found in the strangest of places. Small businesses dot the paths of any traveler. Pull over and you’re surprised by what you find – if not for this time, for another. 

Long lines of traffic a mile within any mall, all remind us of why we are fortunate. We live in a town without freeways and overpasses and hour-long commutes. And we are alive – when others are not. 

As we sit waiting for an intersection to clear, we watch a hawk soaring overhead. When we arrive home, we hardly notice the rare species of birds that others travel the globe to observe here. We do, however, notice the javelina that come munch on our precious plants and coyotes that traverse the washes to scare our pets. But we know we must share our special place. 

Sharing with our own species is trickier. Diversity thrives in Tucson, and yet even here, we have a long way to go. But at least we know that. It’s a start. A beginning that must not end. 

At this time of year, we freely share each other’s traditions, borrowing the best of each. There is joy throughout the month now because we recognize there is more than one holiday to celebrate. And as we do, we learn. That is Tucson, too. 

Hiking the hills that encompass Tucson like a giant hug, protecting us from the outer world, helps us see how Tucson is unique. We find the cacti that confound those who live in greener pastures. The awkward shapes, ungainly growth and prickly pads are largely unnoticed and are avoided without thinking by those who know Tucson. But once in awhile, even native Tucsonans have to stop to appreciate how nature adapts and species survive –  especially when rain has been scarce. 

Ahhh, but when that rain appears. Water from the sky. Business meetings stop and we walk like zombies to the window, watching the rare event together for a moment. Where else does this occur? A silent reverence of something we cannot control but have utter appreciation for, a precious resource. 

And finally, when the weather finally turns cold for a week, we can wear boots again in Tucson. We break out the sweaters we never yet wore. We rush to put them on - only to peel them off hours later as the day warms up. But it felt like winter for a moment there. 

This holiday season, I appreciate the fact that, this is Tucson. It is home.

Kathleen Bethel is the CEO of SARSEF, a science organization for kids. Her email is Kathleen@sarsef.org.