At Sykesville's Merry Main Street holiday celebration early in December, Burke Holbrook and his buddy Benjamin Skalka seemed like just two of the many kids that night enjoying the sights and sounds of the holiday season.
The two 5-year-olds attended the festivities with their parents, walked along the decorated Main Street, enjoyed the town's Christmas tree and visited Santa Claus as part of their preparations for Christmas.
But Christmas 2011 has a special meaning for these two, who started their lives a world away, literally, in an orphanage in Nepal.
The two had been best friends at Child Bright Future, an orphanage in Nepal's Kathmandu Valley, until spring 2010, when they were adopted by couples in far-flung countries.
It was Rae and Matthew Holbrook, of Woodbine, who brought Burke into their family.
"The folks at the orphanage told Burke that we were coming about two months before we got there," Rae Holbrook recalled. "He had seen his friends leave, so (adoption) probably wasn't as much of a shock. But I'm sure it was still hard for him to believe."
The orphanage's atmosphere was anything but Dickensian — Rae Holbrook said the people there refer to themselves as a "jumbo family," and the adults do everything they can to provide a warm atmosphere for the children.
It was in that atmosphere that Burke and Ben had become best friends. The two, along with another friend, Sandes, were almost like siblings.
Then they were separated.
The Holbrooks believe the environment of the Nepal orphanage helped their son adapt readily and happily to his new family, a new culture and its strange new language
He developed a near-spellbinding fascination with things such as escalators, mirrors, bathtubs and, of course, Christmas.
At the orphanage, the children had had a Christmas tree. But Christmas in Nepal was a far cry from the celebration here in the United States.
Burke embraced Christmas in America last year as a favorite time of year, but his parents both noticed how their son never stopped talking about the best friends he left behind, Ben and Sandes, from the orphanage.
"He kept asking about them, but we didn't know what to tell him," Rae Holbrook said.
Miles away, Ben's parents were experiencing the same thing.
Emma and Aaron Skalka had also watched their son undergo a remarkably seamless transition to his new homeland. Aaron Skalka said Ben, too, bonded well with his new family.
"Before we met Ben, all Emma and I had seen was a little 2-by-2-inch passport-style photo of him," said Aaron, who works in the film industry. "But then when they brought him into the room and introduced him to us, he just walked over and kissed each of us on the cheek.
"I can tell you for sure," Aaron said, "the bonding was instantaneous."
Yet his friends from Nepal were never far from Ben's mind.
Sweden-born Emma Skalka said Ben was known to use a cell phone and pretend to call Burke and his other friend, Sandes.
"They are all of an age that they still have bits and pieces of their time in Nepal," she said.
Closer than you think
Back in Woodbine, Rae Holbrook decided to act upon her son's longing to find out about his former friends.
She began a quest, mostly via Facebook and email, to locate Burke's friends.
Her search was hampered by the lack of information available from the orphanage itself, due to either Nepalese governmental restrictions or a simple lack of record keeping. The adoption process in Nepal is coordinated through a centralized government agency, she noted.
"You don't get to pick," she said.
Eventually, she found out from a woman in Switzerland — who'd adopted a little girl at the orphanage — that Benjamin had been adopted by a Swedish woman.
Eventually, she tracked down Emma Skalka's email address.
"So I … emailed her, and she emailed me back," Rae Holbrook said. "I just assumed she lived in Sweden, and she assumed I lived somewhere in Europe, since most kids from that particular Nepali orphanage are adopted by families in Europe."
As they began corresponding, however, the two slowly realized that fate, or luck, had brought them much closer — not a world away, not a country away, not even a state away.
"It took quite a while before we realized we only lived 45 minutes apart — she and Aaron and Ben were right down the road, in Annapolis."
It took little time to reunite the two friends.
"I remember the day in March of this year, when we brought Burke and Ben back together again for the first time," Rae Holbrook said. "At first, the two of them just stared at each other for the longest time, because in Nepal they'd kept their hair short, but here they had both grown full heads of hair."
"Pretty soon, as soon as they were both sure who the other one was, they were just holding hands and running and screaming together, just overwhelmed with excitement," she said.
Shortly thereafter, Rae Holbrook and Emma Skalka made another discovery — Sandes, the third member of the three little Nepalese musketeers, had been adopted by a family in Hoboken, N.J. and was living there. Soon, the three boys had reconnected.
Gift of friendship
In the months since their initial discoveries, the families have brought the boys together frequently, for birthdays, holidays, or just for the sake of play time.
"It's amazing how when we brought the boys back together, it was as if no time was lost between them," Aaron Skalka said.
"But now, it's also that way for us six adults," he said. "It's like we've known each other and been friends all our lives. It's been a huge side benefit."
Another heart-warming benefit has been watching the boys share the childhood discovery of Christmas, in its best and most innocent aspects.
"This is Ben's first Christmas (in America), and it's just been overwhelming for him," Emma Skalka said last week as she watched Ben and Burke decorate the Christmas tree in the club basement of the Holbrooks' home.
"I think the lights, the gifts and Santa Claus are right up there among Ben's favorites," she said.
"And the songs!" Rae Holbrook added. "They hear all the Christmas songs at kindergarten and pre-school, and enjoy them and make up their own words."
"Instead of singing 'Santa Claus is coming to town,' Burke sings, 'Santa Claus is coming two times.'
"That," she said with a laugh, "could be problematic."