“I’ll be home for Christmas…”

depending on what we call home….

The old carol says “I’ll be home for Christmas, if only in my dreams.”

I am home for Christmas.

I’m usually home for Christmas these days, but that wasn’t always the case. And what I called “home” wasn’t always easy to define. Especially during my globe-circling years.

But home is a good place to be on the Christmas holidays, to remember how important family is. To remember why we celebrate Christmas. To strengthen ourselves for the coming new year. There’s a reason we associate Christmas with home and family, and it’s not just the gifts. Or the food. Though both of those things are great.

I grew up in northern New England. On the coast of Maine. With a set of grandparents who lived 45 minutes from the Canadian border, in New Hampshire. White Christmases didn’t happen every year, but Christmas did and it was the traditional one, with big loud family filled rooms, full of food and laughter. Candlelit Christmas Eve services at our church, surrounded by more family, in the choir, on the organ, all around us. We were those people, in the old-fashioned ads for Christmas. We thought everyone was.

We didn’t even have a drunken uncle — unless we were with the New Hampshire gang, and that was rare. No, our family was like Norman Rockwell. In many ways. And I am so incredibly grateful for that.

I wasn’t always glad to be part of a straight, God-fearing family. There were decades of trying to shed it, one way or another. Not the family. Just the obligation it implied. I was young and actually thought that globe trotting with the glitterati was exciting.

Which it actually was. But it was also unsatisfying, for a long run. There is no satisfaction to be found in the world of money and social posture without substance, and my family always knew that. They had good values.

And that is what Christmas is about — values.

But while I was circling the planet, seeking the one thing that might replace that (which is what C.S. Lewis says people do when they refuse to accept God, and that may have played into it, too) – during that rather colorful time, I celebrated Christmas in some pretty unChristmasy settings.

My first (but not last) Florida Christmas was way down on the west coast, near Punta Gorda, there were very few of the millions of people who carpet it now. My first in-laws had a nice old Florida home there, on the edge of the Everglades, and they had grapefruit trees. Since that father-in-law was an old Mainer with a Canadian name, he liked that novelty, even if he had lived in Florida since the Forties. I thought picking grapefruit in the backyard on Christmas morning was pretty cool, too. But the husband wasn’t, so that didn’t happen many more years. His idea of a “white Christmas” had more to do with Scarface….but I digress.

It was also interesting to be invited for Christmas dinner to the French ambassador’s house in Cap Haitien, along with several other attractive young women, and a few officers. All of us from the first cruise ship to regularly visit Cap Haitien. In those days, Cap Haitien may not have been the “Paris of the Antilles” it claimed to be, but the La Bodie island paradise was not owned by cruise ships, either. In fact, only a few of our officers had found it. But I digress.

Dinner was in a fantastic old Haitian home, with a number of servants (not unusual in Haiti), and the food was fantastic, because the ambassador and his wife actually were Parisians. They were looking to spend the day with people who weren’t Haitian, and had included other various expats for cocktails later. It was pretty heady stuff for me then, with little real travel under my belt. But Haiti was that kind of place in the early Seventies. Ambassadors and rock stars. Not concertina wire and drug gangs. But I digress.

I spent quite a number of Christmases on the cruise ships. It was always a busy week. Many people have no family to go home to, and a cruise was a great escape. It wasn’t a petri dish of possible globe-trotting viruses, surrounded by luxury, mindlessness, climbing walls, three story gallerias, and go-kart tracks. La Bodie wasn’t “owned” by Norwegian Cruise lines and surrounded by cyclone fences then either. But I digress.

I also had a moveable feast sort of Christmas, one of the years I worked for the diplomat doctor. It started in London, where he had a home and office on Wilton Crescent. London was the Currier and Ives version of Christmas. Harrod’s is a full city block and was fully lit. All the streets were charming. The cobblestones and evergreen and gas lanterns decorated with bows. I mean, no more Christmassy than London in those days.

But two days before Christmas, we flew to Cairo and driving in from the airport was a shock for me: there were many Christians in Cairo 45 years ago, and many neighborhoods were lit balcony upon balcony with trees and strings of lights. I was stunned. But, like Haiti, it was probably just a moment in time. I doubt there’re many Christians left in Cairo, and I’m sure they don’t decorate. You want to stay pretty low key as a Christian in the middle East these days. But I digress.

The next day we flew on to my boss’s home country, where the French Moroccan chef (stolen from an Emirate prince) who was Christian himself, made a traditional Christmas dinner for the British house manager, and me. Propriety didn’t allow him to sit with us, but he carved the turkey himself and we marveled at the circumstances – an American and a Brit being served Christmas turkey at table for 20, with all the trimmings. Just the two of us at one end.

I don’t remember the English manager’s name, but she was a lot of fun. We had riotous argumentative Scrabble games, and she kept the household running for parties with royalty and other diplomatic corps. We were both a little surprised that our boss had thought to do this for us. He was generous to a fault, as most rich arabs are, but not particularly thoughtful. But I digress.

That same Christmas the gifts from my family were waiting for me in Bavaria, when I got there a few days later. So I opened them in a chalet, on the side of an alp, with 3 feet of snow on the ground, and deer in the trees. A more magical Christmassy location would be hard to find. There actually were bells everywhere.

That house was amazing, too. A large chalet above ground, a a huge mansion with all the trappings for a king built largely underground, including security (not as common in the Seventies as today), and a large household staff. The dining room there seated more than 20, and all the settings were gold. Like the czars had. It was Cinderella stuff. I had to do an inventory of the Asian artifacts in that room and had to call in an expert to see how to maintain 1000 year old wood cabinets- bowls of water in the large cupboards, to keep them from cracking in the dry altitude. (It actually was the house of a king, who went there for medical treatment, and finally to die just a few years ago.) But I digress.

I had a few Christmases in Las Vegas too. But that was home. My second husband and I, and then our son, lived there for 7 years. Sometimes we flew back to Maine or up to Seattle. I had one Christmas in Seattle, before my husband died there. It was not a bad Christmas but we weren’t in our own house. That happened right afterward. And by the second December, he was gone and so were my son and I, back east. There was nothing to keep us there.

That was the Christmas we spent in Manhattan, with the Big Apple Circus, in my brother-in-law’s trailer parked on the grounds of Lincoln Center. You haven’t lived until you’ve seen elephants getting watered behind the opera house, their breath steaming in the morning cold, as New Yorkers race past as if they saw it every day. (Which they didn’t, even then; only at Christmas was the Big Apple at Lincoln Center.) It was an unusual year, too – NYC had a white Christmas. Very white. Several feet of it. The city got silent and beautiful. Like the movies always paint it. Not the city we’re more used to.

I remember going to a special bakery for a chocolate cake, up near Central Park. My sister-in-law and I had to hike back through the calf deep snow, as everything stopped running and the streets got more and more romantic. That night we got a baby sitter from among the older circus children, and a group of us went to a chic little bar where too many people were all trying to be more beautiful than the next, but the lights were low and sparkly and there was no traffic roaring past, and it was only a few steps back to the big top and home. But even that is not the same. The Big Apple Circus is no more a little family of international circus superstars, and New York is a cesspool. But I digress.

There were Christmases in the White Mountains, in a ski village where we lived. And Christmases in Charleston, and Christmases in Miami. And then there was the Christmas in Tuscany, where I was alone with the sheep on the side of a mountain in a 600 year old farmhouse. And the year after that, in an 800 year old farmhouse, with a hard dirt floor, on the border in Dragonija, overlooking the border crossing into Croatia.

That was the year I had to pay 100% duty on my mother’s gift of boat shoes for my upcoming sail to Istanbul. The year we helped L.L.Bean understand that the “insurance value” means different things in foreign countries. You don’t expect to have to pay to receive your gifts…but the trip to Istanbul, down the Adriatic and through all of Greece on a 35 foot sailboat was more than worth it. But I digress.

I’ve been promising my son to write this chapter and it was easy to do today. I’m in my real home, as Rhett Butler said, “…back where I belong.” And even though my husband is in another state with his kids, and my son is in another state with my grandson, I’ve learned that Christmas is a state of mind, and a reminder. And it doesn’t matter where you celebrate, or how, as long as you remember that we celebrate Christ’s birth.

Mary didn’t plan for that to be in a stable. She probably hoped for a bed, at least. But that humble event shaped and changed the world. It still resonates today. Like nothing else that has ever happened. And even if we don’t know exactly what day Jesus was born, this really is the “best time of the year.”

Merry Christmas, y’all.

Thoughts from the Lowcountry swamp

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