The Christmas song, “I’ll Be Home for Christmas” has always evoked nostalgic feelings in me since I was a young child.
My brothers were in the armed forces during Vietnam and I grew up hearing stories of my Dad’s service in the army. Christmas wasn’t complete until my sisters and I watched “White Christmas.” Even though our father was retired from the army long before our births, we all teared up at the troops coming to spend Christmas in Vermont to honor their retired general.
Christmas traditions were tied (with a Christmas bow of course), to my birthday, the week before Christmas. My birthday celebration always ended with decorating the tree. I loved sharing my birthday month with my Savior born in the manger.
When I first married and had kids, being home for the holidays meant visiting family out of state. But as the children grew in age and number, so did our own holiday traditions. It was important to be home for Christmas.
When our youngest daughter Johanna was born and diagnosed with a brain tumor before her first Thanksgiving, celebrating the holidays at home held even greater meaning. It also meant being creative with our celebrations. Over the last 21 years, we’ve spent many holidays in pediatric hospital units. Just last year, Johanna had two surgeries between Thanksgiving and Christmas. But she was on an adult floor so it was not much fun.
If you have to be in the hospital at Christmas time, pediatrics is a good place to be admitted. Santa comes most days between Thanksgiving and Christmas and there are carolers and cookies to take your mind off your struggles. Hanukkah and Christmas decorations in hospitals lighten the mood, even though they are a bittersweet reminder that you really want to be at home with your family.
As Catholic Christians, we are grateful for the tradition of celebrating all the feasts and the 12 days of Christmas. There were a few years when the feast of Epiphany or “little Christmas” served as our primary Christmas celebration and the time when we opened gifts and shared a meal with family and friends.
This year, I have joked that we started a new family tradition. In Hispanic cultures, many families begin celebrating the birth of Christ with the journey that Joseph and his pregnant Mary, made to find shelter in Bethlehem. A couple portraying the holy family lead a procession of friends and families to chosen homes to re-enact the innkeeper welcoming the holy family into the stable at Bethlehem. The tradition is called Las Posadas and is Spanish for lodging or accommodation. It is celebrated for nine days before Christmas. Each night they share prayers and a meal in another family home.
Since we moved and sold our house the day before Thanksgiving, we have been renovating a new home. We have been living in some beautiful places, through the generosity of friends, as we work on the new house. The renovations are pretty extensive since the home was vacant for over five years. The outside needs major work, but we are focused on the inside. It’s not safe to have a medically fragile kid and three dogs and a cat living there while my husband, friends and contractors work diligently to get us into our new home.
And so begins our new Christmas tradition which I’m pretty certain I don’t want to repeat.
But I really can’t complain. We moved from our home to a beach house, looking out on the Peconic Bay. Thanksgiving at the beach was wonderful and my morning rosary walk with the dogs, as the sun rose on the bay, was breathtaking.
The rapid change in the weather (60 degrees to snow in a week), necessitated that we leave the beach quickly so they could winterize the cottage. Did I mention three people, three dogs and a cat? Moving into the beach cottage was fun. Moving out was much harder because we just have too much stuff. My car looks like we are homeless but thankfully, we are not.
We moved from the beach to a family home on a vineyard, all because of the generosity of our friends. Thus began this year’s new Christmas tradition of Las Posadas. But I am certain, our rooms at the vineyard home are much grander than the holy family’s stable in Bethlehem.
My morning walks on the beach are now replaced by prayers among the vines. My reflection on scriptures and images of God’s majesty in the water have been replaced with thoughts about the vineyard of the Lord.
As I walk among the first and oldest vineyard on the North Fork, I pray with the psalmist:
“Restore us oh God Almighty!
Look down from heaven and see!
Tend this vine, the root which your right hand has planted” (Psalm 80:14-15).
The church bells from Our Lady of Ostrabrama chime traditional Christmas and Advent carols across the fields, as we await the coming of the Lord. Being so close to the church makes running to daily Mass easier (though I am always late) and the decorations of this traditional Polish church reveal the glory of the One who comes to us as Emmanuel.
Beside the church is a peaceful cemetery. Two of my friends’ children and parents are buried there. And one of my closest friends, who died this past summer, is also buried there. A new headstone marks her place of rest.
Last week on my birthday, after daily Mass, I walked around the cemetery and sat beside my dear friend in her grave. It was consoling to spend some time chatting with her and imagining her laughing and shaking her head at the new adventures we are living now.
Though we planned to be moved and to celebrate Christmas in our new home, the house isn’t ready just yet. Our hosts have graciously invited us to stay and combine our traditions in their home. All my children and some friends will join us at their table as we gratefully celebrate Christmas with joy in a new way and at another family’s home.
If there is anything I’ve learned about Christmas traditions over the past twenty-one years, it’s that “home for the holidays” is where we make it so. Home is where we honor the gift of God come to us in a manger and on a cross, by welcoming those we love. Whether they be family, friend or stranger, in a hospital room, a beach cottage, on a vineyard or even sitting beside a grave- being home for the holidays is being present to those we love.
I wish you a very Merry Christmas and a healthy holy season as you celebrate your home for the holidays, wherever you are with those you love.