Editor’s Note: Melissa Blake is a freelance writer and blogger from Illinois. She covers disability rights and women’s issues and has written for The New York Times, Good Housekeeping, Glamour and Racked, among others. Read her blog, So About What I Said, and follow her on Twitter. The views expressed in this commentary are solely hers. View more opinion on CNN.
It happens every year. Amid the holiday hubbub, one song – “Home for the Holidays” – forces me to stop what I am doing and reflect on just how beautiful and complicated the idea of home can be, especially this time of year.
How we choose to define home also changes through the years. When we’re young, home is simply where we live or spend the holidays, but as an adult? Well, I’m finding “home” requires a much broader definition.
The song is under three minutes, but the Perry Como classic packs a powerful emotional punch. It talks about the joys of – you guessed it – returning home for the holidays. And one line that touches me every time is: “From Pennsylvania folks are travelin’ down to Dixie’s sunny shore.”
Those 10 words take me back to my own childhood Christmases, to a time when my family would take a road trip down to Dixie’s sunny shores. My grandparents lived in southern Alabama and spending the holidays with them was the highlight of the year. From finding shells on the beach to lively games of bingo (with prizes!) to listening to family stories around the dinner table, my grandparents created the perfect home away from home. We may not have had snow on Christmas morning, but I felt the spirit of the holiday in everything we did.
When you’re young, life – and especially the holidays – are that simple. Home is that physical place where you gather with your family on Christmas morning to open presents that Santa Claus left under the tree.
As we age, many of the people we spent those holidays with pass on, and we are forced to redefine what home for the holidays really means.
In the 16 years since my grandparents and father have died, I’ve approached the holiday season with mixed emotions. While I enjoy Christmas carols, roasting chestnuts and the gift giving experience, I walk a tightrope, as I try to balance my joy for the season with my sadness of the years lost to memories.
So, how do I cope when my childhood Christmas home seems a million miles away?
To begin, I’ve adopted a new definition of home. Home does not have to be physical place. Sometimes it can come in the form of a family photo album, full of memories that remind you of happier times. Sometimes home is sharing stories about our favorite holiday moments, like the times my father would take my sister and me out to play outside after a huge blizzard and how my mom would have hot chocolate waiting for us when we came home – freezing and covered in a layer of snow.
I’ve also tried to carve out new traditions and make new memories. One of my father’s favorite activities was decorating the tree, so we’ve added a new twist on the tradition. We still put up a regular size tree, but we’ve added two tabletop trees. One sits on our kitchen table, and it’s so calming to dim the lights and play a game around the glow of the evergreen. It’s a small change, but it makes a huge difference in my holiday happiness quotient. The other small tree sits on my mom’s dresser in her bedroom, and when we watch TV in there every night, we can admire the pretty lights and ornaments; it makes everything feel more festive.
In a special way, these little tabletop trees have come to symbolize bridging the past and the present, a way to keep memories with my father alive, but also create new memories with my mother and sister today.
Finally, I have decided to experience the holidays – not by who isn’t there, but by who is. My family may be smaller now, but being with my mom and sister (and two cats) during the holidays is what brings me the most joy. So, please, surround yourself with the people you love most – the ones who lift you up, the ones who make the holidays brighter.
That’s my new definition of going home for the holidays.