I’ll be home for Christmas
As I write this I am sitting in the kitchen of the house where my wife, Peggy, and I began our married life. It is the home of my sister now and we are visiting my family for Christmas. This is my first Christmas visit to family in 28 years. For 21 of those years we were on the mission field and, for the last 7, were in an elder care situation with Peggy’s mom. So here we sit in a situation that is both an old familiar nostalgia and a constant reminder that things have changed.
In many ways, things here are as they ever were. My sister’s Christmas tree is decorated with ornaments that I remember from my long-ago childhood. Also on the tree are the two precious family heirloom ornaments brought over from the old country by my maternal great grandmother in the 1870s. I attended church yesterday, and will again at tonight’s Christmas Eve service, in the same church that I played Joseph or a shepherd boy in the 1950s Christmas pageants while wearing a bathrobe in my best imitation of the clothing of that era.
But things are different too. Progress has torn down old stores or shops that I fondly recall and replaced them with newer and glitzier ones. Older folks who I recall from my childhood, or even my early adulthood, are long gone while numbers of unfamiliar faces have taken their place. Things like this cause the passage of 28 years to be easily felt as a loss.
While there are familiar clues of those long-gone Christmases all around I am struck by a sense of being in an alternate universe where things look the same but aren’t. I am reminded of how my mother-in-law, before the ravages of dementia took away much of her memory, used to say how she wished she could leave us in North Carolina and go back “home” to New York. She was appreciative of our care for her but longed for home.
This longing for home, which is particularly strong at Christmas, causes us to cling to traditions; to try and recreate that “Christmas” feeling we had as kids in the lives of the next generation; to do all we can to have ”the Christmas spirit” in us. And it drives more than 50 million of my fellow Americans to make the same homeward journey we have made.
The reality is however that it is not the longing for home we feel but a longing for days gone by. My mother-in-law didn’t miss the NY that was really here now, she missed the NY when she was younger and with people long-gone. We can go home again but when we do we find it has changed even as we have changed.
Why do we have this longing? Why does the quest for the spirit of Christmas affect so many of us? Why do we travel hundreds of miles and engage in frantic activities to follow Christmas traditions? Why do we watch sappy movies where Scrooge-like characters find that spirit and, as a result, their better selves?
I can’t help but think that there is a longing in us for something we know is important and real but that we can’t quite grasp. The longing is a really for a time of when things were perfect. Perhaps what we long for was lost untold centuries ago when Adam and Eve fell and lost their paradise. Perhaps our longing, whether we know it or not, is for heaven – where that quest for paradise will be fulfilled. Perhaps we feel it more keenly when Christmas is upon us for it is now that we join Mary in pondering what this means. Perhaps the birth in Bethlehem reminds us that God is not only aware of our longing but is, even now, preparing us for the day when longing ceases.