What Does It Mean to Be Home for the Holidays?

I can’t explain why, but every year, the first Christmas song that enters my mind is, “I’ll Be Home for Christmas.” Maybe it’s because I’ve spent over 30 years writing about and studying World War II, and my imagination travels back in time to the lonely soldiers on the frontlines for whom that song was written. It was recorded in 1943 by Bing Crosby.

Maybe it traces back to a childhood memory shortly after my parents divorced in which my mother graciously invited my dad to join us all on Christmas Eve at the extended family gathering, securing for me the belief that my dad, though he was no longer living with us, would always be home for Christmas.

Maybe the song stuck in my head during the years my children entered college and I was never sure how often I’d see them or how much they needed me, but I knew they’d be home for Christmas.

Who knows, really, why that song always gets to me.

This year, my Idaho friends and family asked, as they always do, if I was coming home for the holidays, meaning back to Idaho. My local friends asked if my grown children were coming home for the holidays, meaning to this house in which we raised our kids. Meanwhile, I fantasize about spending Christmas in a beautifully decorated bed and breakfast in Vermont.

This time of year, my art always seems to leave me a bit, too. I blame it on the Christmas chaos, but it’s also due to the year-end melancholy that has visited me for as long as I can remember: the inevitable looking back over the past year and feeling both delight and awe at the things I accomplished, and frustration or bewilderment at the things that did not come to fruition; the realization that I’m getting older and so are the people I love; the wondering if I have enough energy and will to go on creating all the things I want to in the next year. I don’t enjoy the melancholy, it feels out of character for me, but I no longer wish it away. It’s familiar to me now, like an old friend, like home.

Home is where the heart is, we say. And it’s true. In some moments, my heart is in my childhood, and home is my grandmother’s house surrounded by my aunts, uncles, and cousins passing presents to each other. I’m so grateful those memories will always be a part of Christmas for me.

On other days, my heart is in our current house as I hang my children’s stockings and remember all the Christmas mornings when my kids rushed half-asleep down the stairs to see what Santa had brought them. I’m so grateful those memories will always be a part of Christmas for me, too.

On other days, my heart travels into the future, to my children’s homes (if I’m lucky enough to be invited) or to that bed and breakfast in Vermont, and I’m so grateful for all the Christmas memories that are yet to come.

In the last line of the song, the soldier says, “I’ll be home for Christmas, if only in my dreams.” So melancholy, don’t you think? That’s okay. Not every Christmas is happy for everyone, and we need to leave space for that too.

Home is not a particular place, it’s not just the people who inhabited those spaces, or the scenery that surrounded it. Home is all the places and spaces where you feel and have felt loved and valued, safe and whole. It’s memory and myth, tradition and change, longing and hope. Like that soldier, it’s something you carry with you, not someplace you go.

May you all feel safely home for the holidays, in whatever ways you celebrate them.

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