Finley: No place like home for Christmas

Nolan Finley
The Detroit News

Growing up, Bing Crosby's "There's No Place Like Home For the Holidays" was my family's Christmas theme song.

We spent most Christmas Eve's in a patched-up sedan, the trunk loaded with Christmas presents and the back seat stuffed with kids. In this pre-car seat era, positions were passed out by seniority; my older sister got the seat, I got the floor board and we wedged my little sister onto that rear window shelf cars used to have.

We were headed south, to Kentucky, but my parents always just said we were "going home."

No matter how many years we spent in Detroit, how far removed we became from the hills and hollers, that was always home. And home was where you went for Christmas.

It was not an easy trip back then. Aside from the possibility of snow and ice, automobiles weren't nearly as reliable. Inevitably, we'd have to deal with a flat tire, overheated radiator or some other mechanical calamity.

And yet my normally grumpy father never let it bother him. He was headed home. And once he got on southbound I-75, he was a changed man. He'd sing along with the Christmas carols on the radio, and pretend to spy Santa's sleigh in the distant sky.

Across the industrial cities of the north, my aunts and uncles and their families were doing the same thing, all of us headed by different routes to a place barely on the map.

It was a common experience for baby boom children. The years following World War II shuffled the population from farms to factories, and most of our families had resettled far from the places of our birth.

Because of that, I always resonated to the part of the Nativity story that described Joseph and Mary traveling to Nazareth to be counted among their people. It was the very first Christmas homecoming, the start of a tradition that remains strong today.

Michigan parents of my generation are on the other end of that ritual. A decade of lost opportunity here sent our children packing for jobs in other places. If you were at the airport this past week, you saw grandparents joyfully reaching for toddlers who didn't quite recognize them. They'll spend next week sending them back. The airport tears will be painful.

Once we got to Kentucky, we'd pull into the yard next to cars with license plates from everywhere. The whole tribe would jam into a three-room house and begin the fight for a sleeping space. The floor was covered with kids on quilt pallets.

The kitchen table couldn't hold us all, so we ate in shifts; first the men, then the kids and finally the women.

I can still hear the low, murmuring voices of my mother and her sisters readying breakfast, while we lay half asleep, reluctant to exchange our warm covers for our half-frozen clothes.

So many of those who filled that house are gone. I realize now that home is people, not a place. As the people fade away, the place gets harder to find.

Still, I'll make the trip once more today. It'll be a lonelier journey. But it's Christmas, and, to quote my grandmother, a body ought to be home at Christmas.