There are songs that have always been part of my life. “I’ll Be Home for Christmas” is one of those. We’ve shared a lifetime together. I was born in 1943, the same year that lyricist Ken Gannon and composer Walter Kent created what was to become a Christmas classic.
“I’ll Be Home” is written from the point of view of a World War II GI stationed overseas. The soldier is dreaming of snow, mistletoe, and presents round the tree.
Bing Crosby helped make the song a hit. He recorded it for US listeners and brought the song to the troops as he performed with the USO throughout Europe. The GI magazine Yank said that Crosby had “accomplished more for military morale than anyone else of that era.”
Bing sang about Christmas decorations, the weather, and family. His crooning touched hearts, though, with the closing words, “If only in my dreams.”
As we make our way through these dark, rainy December days, “I’ll be home … in my dreams” captures the reality of this surreal 2020 COVID-19 holiday season for me.
Like many, I don’t live in the place of my birth. I moved to the Puget Sound region in 1973, and this fourth corner of the U.S. has become my home. Yet, most every December I have flown to Michigan, the state where I was born and raised, and as soon I stepped through the door of my mother’s place, I was “home.”
Each holiday was rich with tradition. Since my father’s death in 1981, Christmas Eve would be just mom and me. At ten p.m., we’d bundle up, drive around town to look at the Christmas lights, then arrive at the First United Methodist Church a bit before eleven o’clock for the Christmas Eve candlelight service. My brother and his family joined us Christmas afternoon. There would be gifts to open. Especially as my brother’s kids had kids, there were presents in abundance. Turkey, stuffing, etc. was eaten. One tradition unique to our family: my brother, wearing a Santa hat, would ho-ho-ho his way down the St. Clair River, kayaking through the frigid water.
But, of course, I’m not going to Michigan this year. No homegoing for me—I’m staying home.
Here’s the strange thing. I have no Christmas Day traditions here. Because of my commitment to my Michigan trek, and because of my wife Linda’s attachment to Washington and Utah family, for the past twenty-two years, she and I have never shared Christmas Day. This, our first December 25 together, we’ll be sequestered, just the two of us. It’s a bittersweet thought. It will be a delight to share the actual holiday, and it will also be overlayed by the shadows of “what might have been.”
Linda and I have done plenty to honor the holiday every other year. We would host a child/grandchild centered tradition we called The Jeanne Tree on the Saturday before Christmas. Six friends created a tradition we call Lesbian Christmas. Linda and I declared “our” holiday the night before I flew to Michigan. I’d be back by New Year’s Eve for our multiple-day get-together with friends for another Christmas celebration and to welcome in the new year.
Those traditions will have to wait for Christmas 2021 But, how to celebrate this year? My Michigan family is going to do a Zoom gift-opening Christmas afternoon, and we’ll join in that. Linda and I will hook up with our friends we usually see over New Year’s Eve via Zoom to open gifts and to exuberantly celebrate the end of 2020. But those we usually see for our Lesbian Christmas are pretty negative about a virtual present-opening. That may have to be out-of-doors, risky during a Washington winter, or postponed until, well, postponed until.
Attending Christmas Eve candlelight services has always been the spiritual center of the season for me. As a child, I marveled as the sanctuary lights were dimmed, replaced by our flickering candles. The wonder never left me. As much as I enjoyed re-experiencing the church of my childhood each December, I have been sad year after year that I haven’t been able to worship in the church of my adulthood.
The virus laughed at that wish. Garden Street United Methodist closed its building last March—no Christmas Eve candles there this season. Instead, my voice has been recorded, as have the voices of the others in our choir. We’ll be one of those now-familiar screen shots, each one of us choristers a square box on the screen, appearing to sing together. Linda and I will watch from our living room couch. The spirit will come to us through the two candles we’ll light against the dark.
So, that’s my condition of away from home, yet home—a mix of remembered traditions and those new ones created especially for this unique Nativity season. I’ll miss my Michigan family, separated by distance. I’ll also miss my close-at-hand family and friends, separated by the dangerous nature of this virus.
I’ll be wistful about all I’ll miss, both in Michigan and here in Washington. And then, when I’m done examining my heartfelt, but temporary—and minor–losses, I’ll say a prayer of gratitude for all my blessings and a prayer of intercession for the needs of so many. I’ll bow my head in memory of all who have died of COVID-19 and for those mourning their loss. I’ll whisper prayers for the well-being of all our health care workers, laboring through the holiday, for surely the virus will not give them a day off. I’ll name those whose holiday is darkened by the financial hardships they are facing. I’ll pray for protection for those who have no safe, secure home at all.
We’ll all be home for Christmas … if only in our dreams. Dear reader, I do wish you a blessed Christmas. If you’d like to hear Bing Crosby singing “Home for Christmas,” here he is.