Readers recall holidays spent in unfamiliar surroundings.
MADE THE BEST OF BEING AWAY FROM HOME: A Marine stationed in Okinawa, Japan, made a very special phone call to Circleville, Ohio, in 1989 to wish his family a Merry Christmas.
For the Heart of the Home section for the November/December issue, we asked readers to share their memories of spending the holidays away from home. Here are a few of the stories we printed in the magazine.
June 1976 began my four-year sojourn overseas in Germany, first in West Berlin for two and a half years, then in Wiesbaden for 18 months. Although I was very far from home – Houston, where my parents lived – Christmas 1976 was a monumental time for experiencing the fabulous sights overseas for the first time in my life during a holiday season.
In order for Hanukkah and Christmas gifts to arrive back home in time for opening on the appropriate mornings, I had to carouse the shopping centers no later than the week before Thanksgiving. Then I had to get the gifts wrapped and mailed to the United States.
As I journeyed down the main shopping thoroughfare in West Berlin, the stores and people were already in high spirits in anticipation of the upcoming holidays. Store fronts and interiors were lavishly decorated, subways and buses were jammed with bustling people carrying shopping bags, and the aroma of Glühwein (mulled wine) and roasted chestnuts wafted upon the winds as the occasional snow flurry drifted downward.
In no time, I was caught up in the excitement of the approaching holidays. Thoroughly enjoying the act of gift-buying and the anticipation of wrapping and giving the gifts to loved ones, every moment in every store was a treasure to behold. However, as Hanukkah came and went, I terribly missed experiencing the holidays with my mom and dad. I couldn’t even call them because overseas calls were too expensive for me to afford.
After my stay in Germany, I happily moved closer to home and was able to celebrate other holidays with my parents before they passed away.
The joy of experiencing another culture abroad was marvelous, and I’m glad I learned valuable experiences from it and have wonderful memories.
Joanne - Herrin, Illinois
My granddad always said he would spend the winter in Florida after he retired, and he made good on that promise.
Turning 12 that year and having heard Granddad’s stories of Florida all my life, I couldn’t wait to get to his favorite place as we packed up the car and headed south.
As the Christmas season approached, we basked in the mild weather, knowing that back home in Ohio, the weather was blustery with several inches of snow possibly blanketing the ground.
Searching for the perfect Christmas tree, we scoured the local tree lots, but much to our dismay we found only scrub pines with very expensive price tags. Not one to be discouraged, Grandma gathered dozens of huge pine cones from the pines in our backyard, and we spent several days painting the tips of the cone petals with hobby paint. When Grandma assembled the colorful cones in graduated layers and wound the lights around them, we had the most beautiful little Christmas tree ever.
On Christmas Day, we gathered at a cousin’s home to celebrate the holiday and enjoy a delicious dinner. A festive table was set up outside, and all the wonderful foods were served picnic-style. Everything but the turkey, that is, because before the turkey could even be carved, a stray dog that had adopted us, grabbed it by the leg and made a remarkable getaway.
I’ll never forget that old hound racing down the driveway, the turkey dangling from his mouth. In my childish mind, it was the funniest thing I’d ever seen. Of course, the adults didn’t find it quite as amusing, although I did see a faint smile cross Grandma’s face.
That year was the only year I’ve ever spent Christmas away from home, and it is one of my most memorable ones. Every year when I dust the cobwebs off of my Christmas memories, that one always brings a smile to my face, followed by a little tear. That was Grandma’s last Christmas, and I’m so thankful it was a good one.
Cindy - Steubenville, Ohio
After locating my husband’s relatives in Victoria, Australia, in the early 1990s, we made plans to visit and spend Christmas with them. My first thought was what would the holidays be like without my family? My second thought was that cold, snowy weather in the Northeast where we live is synonymous with Christmas, but it would be summer in Australia, which meant there would be no snow and no cold weather to go along with the holidays.
I was still excited about going, but I was also a little apprehensive. Our children had insisted we go and have a good time, but I wondered if we would really enjoy ourselves. I’m happy to say we did.
We spent Christmas Eve in Geelong, and it seemed we sat at the table forever, devouring all the goodies cousin Emilia had put together. I was glad I was able to help with her traditional Christmas delicacies of fried dough stuffed with anchovies.
Christmas morning was spent opening gifts at cousin Maria’s house in Colac, followed by a lovely breakfast, then an incredible dinner. It was Christmas Day when it hit me that I missed my family and our traditions. Sensing my homesickness, Maria insisted that we call and talk to our boys, my mom and my husband’s mom. Her thoughtfulness was my favorite gift.
On New Year’s Eve, we gathered at the home of cousins Mary and Lou. They live on a huge farm in the beautiful countryside in Birregurra, and we had a barbecue.
What great memories we have of that Christmas we spent far from home. Despite the distance, it felt like we were at home because our new family shared all the important aspects of Christmas with us.
Elinor - Niagara Falls, New York
When my brother-in-law asked, “Would you like to spend Christmas with us in Arizona?” it took our family all of about seven seconds to say, “Yes.”
Soon we were driving west on a 2,000-mile journey. As we drove, our New York winter snow gave way to rain, then sunshine. We continued driving, and, as we worked our way across the country, we were greeted by hot, summer temperatures.
When we arrived in Phoenix, Christmas celebrations were well under way. Lights and displays were set up everywhere. Homeowners seemed to be in competition with each other as they covered their homes and yards with a full array of colorful decorations.
These displays were for the public, and as soon as it was dark, those streets were filled with vehicles slowly making their way through a panorama of gorgeous scenery. The colors were bright, and the displays extravagant. Homeowners smiled, greeted and occasionally offered candy to occupants of the passing vehicles.
Christmas morning arrived sunny and hot, which was normal for Arizona but far from normal for us New Yorkers. It’s tradition for our family to look outside on Christmas morning before opening gifts. When we did, there was no snow, and we missed the brilliant white blanket. We did, however, enjoy the absence of blustering wind, blizzards and ice.
Gifts were limited in size that year because they had to be transported in the trunk of the car, which made things more challenging. It inspired creativity in all of us, though, and nobody was disappointed.
One afternoon of our holiday vacation was spent watching the blues, yellows, reds and greens of hot air balloons as they filled the skies. The variety of their designs was only surpassed by their number. We had seen an occasional hot air balloon, but never so many at once.
All too soon, it was time to go home, so we packed ourselves, our luggage and our gifts into the car, said our goodbyes, and headed on a direct route across the southern states, then on to New York.
The closer we drove toward home, the more snow we encountered. The couple of weeks without it made its appearance inviting. Our Christmas trip was a wonderful extended family reunion, but it was good to get back home to the cold and wind, as well as to the snowmen we saw standing in many yards.
Elouise - Beaver Dams, New York
In December 1953, I was planning my wedding, moving to St. Louis, Missouri, and setting up a new apartment. Four days after the wedding, on the afternoon of Christmas Eve, it dawned on me that I hadn’t bought a gift for my new husband. So, I ventured downtown.
There, among all the lights and decorations, it hit me that I was 1,500 miles from home and wouldn’t be spending the holidays with my family. There would be no tree trimming, no reading of the Christmas Story, no midnight Mass, and no visiting with relatives on Christmas Day while enjoying a turkey feast.
With misty eyes, I purchased cuff links for my husband, then walked around and looked at the decorations, trying to fill myself with the Christmas spirit.
When I got home, I flipped on the light and was pleasantly surprised. Instead of a living room with just a couch and a TV, the room was a wonderland of lights and decorations, and in the center stood a tree adorned with lights and shiny ornaments.
My grinning husband appeared then, and asked if I liked it. He had taken the afternoon off, went shopping, then came home and decorated. He said he knew what it was like to be away from home, because he had served in the Korean War, and he wanted me to know that while we were a long way from our families, we were a family now and this was our home.
Over the years, those ornaments have traveled with us from Missouri to Kansas, Connecticut, New York and California. Every year when I trim the tree, I think about our first Christmas together, and how it started out as two kids far from home missing their families and wound up being the beginning of Christmas at home for both of us.
Florence - North Hollywood, California
“Merry Christmas,” I told myself in 1989, as I lay on the ratty old couch in my assigned room eating a chocolate chip cookie and remembering the telephone call I’d made 15 hours earlier.
I had gotten up at 5:30 a.m. to make the call to my family. I had to since there was a 12-hour time difference between Okinawa, Japan, and Circleville, Ohio.
“Thank you, operator,” I had said as I checked my watch, then listened to the ringing on the other end of the telephone line.
“Come on, somebody pick up,” I had mumbled.
Finally, the ringing stopped, then I heard my mom’s voice.
“Hello, Mom. It’s me, John,” I had said. “Merry Christmas.”
“Oh, my word,” she said, then turned and yelled, “Jack, come to the phone. It’s John.”
As I talked to everybody in the family, the difference between our two worlds suddenly hit me square in the face. They could barely hear me because of a scratchy connection on my end, and I could barely hear them over all the talking and laughter in the background on their end.
They were getting ready to go out for Christmas Eve dinner, and I knew what they would do after dinner. It was tradition to go out to dinner, then return home and build a big fire in the fireplace before opening gifts. Following that, Dad would fall asleep in his chair, my brothers and sister would go to bed, and Mom would be up half the night. Christmas morning, everyone would wake and open the gifts Santa Claus had left during the night.
I guess I should have been depressed, but I wasn’t. I knew that my being in the Marine Corps and being deployed to Okinawa was the whole reason my family was able to freely celebrate the season.
John - Hilton Head, South Carolina
Last Christmas was the first one I’ve ever spent away from home.
My husband had a heart test scheduled for December 15 in another state. After the procedure, the doctor told us that my husband was too sick to leave the hospital, and he scheduled surgery for the 18th. It was unexpected, and I was unprepared – no extra clothing, no medication, and nobody lined up to take care of our dogs at home.
I quickly made a couple of phone calls. One call was to a neighbor, who gladly agreed to care for the dogs. The other call was to a friend, who offered to bring me my medicine. I didn’t think to ask her to bring me any clothes, though, so I went to a nearby shopping area and purchased a few items I knew I would need.
On Christmas Day, a nurse came into my husband’s room to check on him, then handed him a green envelope. Inside was a Christmas card with these words written: “I spent a Christmas in the same hospital, and I know it is a lonely time for you. Please know that someone is saying a prayer for your recovery. My heart has been fine now for 10 years.” There was no signature.
When we asked the nurse about the person who sent the card, she told us that a certain man brings a Christmas card to every heart patient in the hospital each year, and has done so for the last 10 years.
My husband was released from the hospital, and we got home December 29. That Christmas card, which was so heartfelt it brought tears to our eyes, is among our prized possessions.
Frankie - Coffeyville, Kansas
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