What really matters at the holidays is being together. If we have our families and our health, we can be thankful and truly celebrate. That’s what we have been told—and told ourselves—countless times.
This year, we are especially aware of the importance of family, as many American families are separated by overseas military service. Not only are hundreds of thousands of men and women far from loved ones, but they are in places that bear little resemblance to home. In many cases they are in mortal danger. Surely this creates an underlying stress in family members left behind, even more keenly felt at the holidays. Added to this fear is the lingering uncertainty about when overseas duty will give way to returning home.
I don’t personally know what it feels like to be in the service or to be missing someone who is stationed far from home. But for the last five years my family and I have been without extended family at the holidays, living halfway across the country from our northeastern relatives. At least the four of us have been together to share holiday meals with friends and neighbors, following which we enjoyed the lazy days surrounding Thanksgiving, Christmas or New Year’s. We have relaxed by the fire in our great stone fireplace, with seasonal music in the background, savoring the tree, the lights, our festive decorations. We have munched on traditional holiday baking and treats—and taken an occasional walk around the block to make room for more food.
But this year will be different. Home for Thanksgiving, we will be homeless for Christmas. We are moving from Oklahoma to New Hampshire in mid-January, but our prayers to sell our house have been answered all too quickly, requiring us to vacate our home mid-December, one month early—and ahead Christmas!
Of course, I already feel guilty about making my children move in their high school and middle school years. Now I feel even guiltier to rob them of their last Christmas in this house. We expect to occupy the house of friends while they are away at Christmas (visiting military children on another continent, as it happens). After that time, we may bunk with other friends or stay in a hotel. We will not only have a roof over our heads at all times, but we will no doubt be very comfortable. Still, it won’t be home.
Usually not given to displays of emotion, I have been very shaken by this turn of events. How can I rip my children from their home at Christmastime? It’s bad enough to turn them into wanderers for a month—but at Christmas?
The irony is that I work everyday with children and families who are truly homeless. They live in shelters, motels or cars. They double or triple up with other families (often with multiple adults participating in Lord-only-knows what kind of unhealthy behaviors)—in accommodations that you and I would consider sub-standard for just one family.
Knowing what I do about these struggling families, I really can’t compare my coming unsettled month with their circumstances. I have resources—if not family nearby, I do have many friends who would take me in. While I may not want to spend it, I have money to pay for multiple nights in a nice hotel. And I have reliable transportation—times two. So I will not really be homeless.
And yet—my situation makes me feel insecure, uncertain, unsettled, and sad. Perhaps I am feeling just a tiny, tiny, tiny bit of what a parent in a truly homeless family feels—especially at Christmas.
We know that on that very first Christmas, our Savior was born into a family away from home. Desperate, Joseph and Mary took whatever shelter they could find, which ended up being a stable. They had nothing. They made do, apparently trusting God.
This year, my husband, two children, and I will celebrate Christmas in the home of others. We will have with us as little of our own stuff as we think we can get by on for one month—about a week’s worth of clothes, plus a few special, small items that we can’t do without, such as some favorite Christmas music, for instance. We will bake cookies in early December. I will make and freeze Swedish meatballs for our traditional Christmas Eve supper. We will probably not have a tree. We will intentionally not have many gifts to exchange, especially of any size.
This promised different Christmas is forcing me to consider what really does matter at the holidays. Do I really believe that who I am with is more important than where I am? Do I really believe that who I celebrate is more important than a tree? What do I want my children to experience—and why? Certainly I recognize the importance of family traditions. Certainly I value stability for my children—particularly when I daily witness the detrimental consequences of acute or chronic instability in children who are homeless.
Are my children flexible enough to weather an unusual holiday season? Am I? Is being together enough? Will God see us through? Is the birth of Jesus what I really celebrate?
I believe the answer to each of these questions is “Yes!” And still, I am bound to the familiar, to what I have come to associate with Christmas. Whether you are comfortably settled this season or uncomfortably unsettled, join me in asking—and answering—these difficult family questions.
Karen Zurheide is executive director of Positive Tomorrows, a center providing support services for children and youth facing family life challenges.