Turn your mind to the late Karen Carpenter's clear voice and listen for her lilting version of "There's No Place Like Home for the Holidays": "Oh, there's no place like home for the holidays, ‘cause no matter how far away you roam - if you want to be happy in a million ways, for the holidays - you can't beat home sweet home. For the holidays, you can't beat home sweet home."
By the time the lyrics end, you can see yourself surrounded by adoring family members and the faithful Labrador, sitting by a roaring fire (not needed this year, regrettably) with a cup of steaming Folger's coffee in your hand (if you're to believe their seasonal ads that imply Christmas won't be Christmas without their brew).
What is conjured up by those alluring coffee commercials is actually what most of us believe: It just won't be Christmas unless the entire family is reunited under the soft glow of a Christmas tree, telling and re-telling family lore, sharing a loaded table of turkey and trimmings, and filling and re-filling bottomless cups of egg nog.
It was crooner and former barber Perry Como who first recorded "There's No Place Like Home for the Holidays" in 1954. (I remember it well.) Ah, the Fifties. As a child of those days, I enjoyed only the best aspects of Christmas and life in general. We were a family of four children then, but soon we'd be eight. By the time that happened, Mamma would hang eight matching stockings over the fire. On Christmas morning, she brought out eight matching Santa mugs for hot chocolate. For many years when we were young, she organized a Christmas pageant in our living room. Each of us had roles, but it also took a few young cousins to fill all the parts of shepherds, angels and Wise Men.
The Fifties were idealized in shows like the long running "Ozzie and Harriet Show" that aired from 1952 to 1966. Its representation of family life, as lovely as it was, really didn't tell the whole story of society at that time, but we bought it anyway. Many of us still cling to that version, often lamenting how today's families just don't measure up to the ideal that Ozzie and Harriett left with us.
The truth is that families and family life today quite often don't hold up in comparison to the warm fuzzies as captured in song and television of those times. And sometimes, those softly glowing Christmas trees cast, instead, a glaring light on the fractures, rifts, losses and separations with which we are faced at a time of year when we most want to go back and re-create our best holiday memories.
Children grow up, make their own families and have to split holidays with in-laws. It's a fact of life. They move away and make lives elsewhere and sometimes just can't manage to get home for Christmas, especially if "elsewhere" is hundreds or thousands of miles away and especially if little ones want to be in their own house on Christmas morning. UPS will take care of the packages, but the aching hearts can't be shipped. Sometimes Christmas comes too soon on the heels of Thanksgiving, and Thanksgiving is often viewed as more of a "must" for gathering with family than is Christmas. Don't put the leaf in the table. Or say you've got a son flying stand-by at one of the busiest times of the year. Your Christmas table is set, and the room is ready, but United just can't manage to get him here. Oh, the disappointment, the hole in the heart.
The passing of people we hold most dear seems most keenly felt when the holidays come around. No one dares sit in dad's chair by the fire or his seat at the table. And no one can make a pecan pie like mom, so we settle for a bought apple pie. The pillars of the family will be missing forever. New memories will have to be made, but there will always be a catch in the throat when those not here anymore are recalled. Simmering rifts between siblings or between parents and children or just between parents sometimes escalate over the holidays for no seeming reason except the extra stress we all face this time of year.
No one gets everything they want for Christmas. Presents can't assuage hurt feelings or make a family whole or mend rifts or replace losses. But at Christmas time, there is, indeed, more hope than at any other time of the year that what is lost or broken or missing or painful can be overcome or made right. Hope was born into this world at Christmas. No one or nothing is without hope and not just at Christmas.
Barbara Morgan is a Covington resident with a background in newspaper journalism, state government and politics. She chairs the Newton Advisory Committee.