The first really sad Christmas I remember was when I was I guess 21, my first year not in school, I made very little money and couldn’t afford the airfare. I don’t remember what I did that year, but it was not sitting around the tree for hours with my family listening to the Nutcracker, drinking egg nog and eating shrimp cocktail, and opening presents. My memory is fading, but I think there were two Christmases around that time in my life when I didn’t go home to Indiana.
“Home for Christmas” is not an expression I use anymore. The house where my parents lived since the mid-80s is not any of the houses I grew up in, but I thought of it in some sense as home, or it was one of the places I thought of as home — there have been many and sometimes none — but now that my mother is gone, every year it’s less home and more the house where my father lives alone. We’ll spend most of our visit at my sister’s family’s home, where I feel very much “at home,” but not “home.”
Not that any of these feelings are inappropriate to the season. The weeks leading up to the end of December are marked in different ways in different traditions, but the common thread is as ancient as humanity: we watch with dread and mourning the days grow shorter, the nights get longer. We are alone, abandoned by the sun, and we hope against hope that it will come back. When it does, we celebrate. Everything turns around. No more sadness. A new beginning. Of course we always knew it would come back, but the world still feels so empty, so bleak, until it does.
The trouble with all the other losses — your childhood house, Santa Claus, my mother — is that they are not so temporary. So the Christmas season has become less a vigil for the return of the sun than a reminder of everything that's gone long gone.