These holidays- Hanukkah, Christmas, New Year’s – mean different things to different people. For me the holidays conjure up thoughts of home.
But what is “home” in a country where one out of five people moves every year? In the years since I left my birthplace, I have lived in Lafayette, Ind.; Galesburg, Ill.; Oslo, Norway; Washington, D.C. (twice); Baltimore, Md.; Columbus, Ohio; and Denver (twice).
Home, for many, is both an idea and a place. For me, home, the place is Lebanon, Ind., a little town of 12,000 or so just north of Indianapolis in central Indiana. Even though I left Lebanon in 1946, when I was 6 years old, I still think of it as home.
Lebanon is home because that’s where I was born. That’s where I got to know my grandparents and my uncles and aunts. That’s where I first saw grown-ups crying – first, when a family member was lost in World War II and then when President Franklin Roosevelt died.
We left Lebanon in 1946. I never lived there again. But it’s still home. It always will be. I’ve been back several times. One visit was on a Fourth of July and they had a parade. Rick Mount, the local basketball star – he was also Indiana’s “Mr. Basketball” in 1966 or thereabouts and had just turned pro – was in the lead car. The second car had the mayor. And the local congressman was in the third car.
That line-up baffled me at the time. But, with the passing years, I think the priorities of Lebanon’s parade marshal were about right: in the scheme of things, it is probably an element of strength of American democracy that we make heroes of our entertainers – those in sports and the movies, especially – and not of our politicians. Politicians can do damage. The others we simply enjoy until they run out of steam.
But home is also an idea. For me it’s wherever the family gets together, especially at Christmas. In my family, we would always have Santa Claus at home early in the morning and then visit the grandparents where other members of the family would gather.
Of the may recollections, one especially stands out: the seating arrangements for Christmas dinner. Just like the movie Avalon – where the adults sat at the dining room table and the kids were strung out in folding chairs under card tables lined up into the living room – so it was in our family. And Aunt Betty, the youngest of the aunts, was always assigned to sit at the card tables to supervise, to keep the place from turning into a John Belushi-style Animal House.
One of the biggest days of my life – I think I was around 13 – was the Christmas I was invited to sit in the dining room with the grown-ups, and to engage in adult conversation. I have fond memories of the induction ceremony – no one would call it that but that’s what it was. I was even asked what I thought of President Eisenhower and the job he was doing. I had made it in the family. That was my big day.
So, Lebanon is the place and being with the family is the idea.
Today, the family is larger and much more spread out. But Christmas is the time when the idea of the family is renewed by the visits and telephone calls and the long, boring Christmas letters, which everyone makes jokes about, but most find time to read.
So, as we celebrate our nation’s biggest holiday, it’s a good time to think about what’s really important. To me, it’s “being home,” and that’s wherever the family gathers. Tomorrow, home is in Denver.