When I think of Christmas back home, I’m five years old at my great-grandmother’s tiny house on Browns Fork. The 10-minute drive from our house in town to hers in the country was just long enough to feel like we were going somewhere. Inside we would join a mess of cousins, grandparents, uncles, and aunts, plied with peanut butter fudge, chicken and dumplings, and laughter. Her tree, never much taller than my great-granny herself, shined with silver tinsel and colored lights. A coal stove made the whole house a reprieve from the cold.
I was a skeptical child who eavesdropped too much; I can’t remember believing in Santa. But one piece of magic I did allow myself to believe: it always snowed on Christmas at Browns Fork, and everyone was happy to be there.
When my husband and I started having babies, we decided we would stay home in Ohio for Christmas Eve and Christmas Day. I admit: It took me a while to find comfort in our decision. Even as we made our own memories here with our three sons, I longed for the boisterous and warm Christmas gatherings of my childhood. So every December 26, we load up and head out for Kentucky, propelled not by obligation but because as Linda Scott DeRosier wrote in her 1999 memoir Creeker: “Christmas is ‘coming-home time.’”
But this year, it’s not. The pandemic has grounded many of us determined to gather with distant relatives and friends. It’s the right decision and a damn shame. As if Covid-19 wasn’t enough to keep me home, the Brent Spence Bridge, which spans the river between Ohio and Kentucky, caught on fire this fall just to rub it in. I can’t even get across the river without a hassle.
Now more than ever, I appreciate that we’ve built our own traditions. We wake Christmas morning to French toast made from panettone bread. One year, my oldest son requested a snowflake made from fried chicken drumsticks; Christmas is now fried chicken snowflake day. We bake cookies, watch movies, spend all day playing with new toys. My husband is a great gift-giver, which has finally broken down my (Appalachian?) anxiety that gifts aren’t really a good way to spend your limited money.
And each December, I tell my kids stories from my childhood, like those beloved days at Browns Fork and of the guests my uncle would bring home from Lexington. Most memorable was his friend Colm from South Africa, whose wild curly ringlets and accent charmed us. My grandma made him a stocking. One holiday, the same uncle brought his pregnant dog, who birthed a puppy in the basement. It’s no mystery why my favorite Christmas advertisement is the 1986 “Peter Comes Home For Christmas” Folgers coffee commercial, where the college-aged son appears unexpectedly at the door. My kids ask why I’m watching an old commercial on Youtube and crying.
In lieu of returning home this year, I’m left with these memories and those of other Appalachian expats who have also written about that call to get home. I’ve re-read the Chris Holbrook story “Christmas, Down Home.” His narrator is trying to get his family from Dayton to eastern Kentucky through a winter storm, all the while wrestling with the disconnect between his memories of Christmas back home and the reality.
“The prospect of continuing on home seemed somehow wearisome beyond thought now. He ought to just give it up, he thought, give it up and head back to Ohio, back to Dayton. It would not be like the picture he held in his mind. It would not be like that at all.”
Of course, like Holbrook’s story reminds us, in none of these houses – his homeplace, Browns Fork, Peter’s, my own – is Christmas perfect. Relatives die. People divorce. Kids get shuffled from one house to the other. Peter might have flunked his semester for all we know. That one cup of Folger’s might be the only peaceful moment of his mama’s Christmas. It’s not perfect now, nor was it ever.
What, then, to make of the returning? When we head back down the highway home each Christmas, we might be grasping for something out of reach. But it’s the grasping that says it mattered in the first place and still does.
This Christmas, if you can’t go home, consider finding your own solo ritual – a walk on Christmas Eve, a poem that brings you hope. If we’ve learned anything this year, it is that tradition matters, but sometimes we might be alone to see it through.
And I’ll be home next Christmas. That is another bit of magic I will allow myself to believe.