Every year since I moved away from New Orleans, I’ve flown home for Christmas. During that regular migration, I get pensive, thinking about how I’ve changed since I lived there full-time, what I’ve done in the year past, wonder how much closer I am to living in my hometown again some day. It’s amazing to me that I’ve only spent one Christmas Day that wasn’t in New Orleans (2005, the first Christmas after Hurricane Katrina, was spent in Tennessee).
I’ve spent 23 Christmases in New Orleans. It’s hard for me to imagine a Christmas anywhere else. And yet, I think my parents always imagined we would eventually call a new place home and find new holiday traditions.
My dad gifted my mom Christmastime in New York City in 1991. He wrote an inscription on the endpapers that reads “one day, we’ll get there”. Two Christmases have passed since I began living in New York and I’ve gotten to see most of the sights included in this gorgeously illustrated book (Saint Thomas Church, the New York Public Library, Park Avenue, and Radio City Music Hall to name a few).
I work close to the South Street Seaport (though it doesn’t look quite like this anymore–the book was illustrated in the mid-1980s). I know my parents dreamed of leaving New Orleans one day, of spending Christmases in a place where it snows and there are seasons. But to me, that’s just not how the holiday season looks. It’s novel to sit in the pews of Saint Thomas, to see the tree in Rockefeller Plaza, but it’s no New Orleans.
Going home to New Orleans means constructing a cardboard gingerbread house for my cat, Ember.
Going home means catching up with my journal and re-reading and re-experiencing the year, laughing at the hardships and successes alike.
Going home means helping my brother paint a mural of a historic map of his neighborhood (which features his house listed as a commercial property, honoring its history and reshaping its future).
Going home means a candle-lit midnight service at St. Paul’s. It means cranberry sauce and pumpkin soup. It means staying up late with my mom and reading holiday children’s books like Wendy Matthew’s The Gift of a Traveler. It means watering the tree every night and inhaling the scent of fresh Douglas fir needles.
It means walking around my neighborhood in the surprisingly warm air and seeing the lights and decorations, new and old. It means seeing change and recognizing that so much has changed and will change, and yet, there, just over there, I can see the flicker of a memory from when I was five and the world was soft. I’m racing my brother, weaving between the line of tall, tall pine trees, kicking pine cones up as I go. Dad and Mom are walking behind in deep conversation. We all stop at the open window of a house from which a warm glow comes. A woman is on her sofa, reading a book. We all gather around my dad as he proclaims “All is right with the world,” as he would every night we walked past this house. Every night the old woman relaxed on her couch, reading her book, never knowing what a symbol she was to us.
I haven’t been able to find that house since Hurricane Katrina, and yet, I know, somewhere, that woman is reading her book under a warm lamp, in front of an open window, on a quiet street lined with pine trees. For as long as I’m alive. For as long as I remember. She will be there, in my heart and mind. I know it isn’t so much the place, as the people and the traditions. Still, there’s nothing quite like going home for the holidays.