Usually, when I’m driving through the back roads of my suburban hometown listening to Something Corporate as loud as possible, I feel a tiny, twisting punch of anxiety just beneath the surface of my chest. It’s rarely unexpected, but it’s always unwelcome. I’ll be singing along to songs I heard the first time over 10 years ago, passing homes of friends I don’t keep anymore, and that sense of anxiety will lurk alongside me, one of the most familiar haunts of this town.
Heading home for the holidays can be endlessly exciting. It’s a time to reconnect with old friends, spend uninterrupted time with family, visit old hangouts and start to understand what it’s like to be an adult in the place most of us only ever knew as kid.
It can also be inexplicably painful and challenging, it can force odd crises of identity and longing, and even for those with the best of families and old friends in sight, it can feel like a bizarre foray into a past long left behind.
For me, my hometown mostly feels like a place I’m supposed to call home that, simply put: isn’t home anymore.
There are several things that can be difficult about going “home” for the holidays:
Realizing You Aren’t Who You Were Then
When many of us go home for the holidays, we’re headed to a familiar place—a place we spent many years becoming the person we are today. But, the trouble is, we’re not that person anymore. And, more than likely, it’s not that place anymore. There are new restaurants. Your mom has redecorated your old room. Your old friends have a new batch of inside jokes, and you don’t know any of them.
This isn’t such a bad thing. If God has any say in it, we’re all always changing. We were created to evolve and develop, constantly learn and grow; we were made to seek new experiences, new people, new relationships. And at the same time, we were equipped with deep love to maintain connections over years and miles and through winding back roads we never get to drive.
And here is where the tension of returning home erupts: How do we come to terms with the person we are now in a place full of memories of the person we were then?
For many of us, leaving home has led us to new beliefs, new views on the world, distances between family or friends—even if in the most subtle of ways. And returning home requires us to determine the distance between and consider how we’ve grown since we’ve been gone and ask ourselves if we have grown in the way God has wanted us to.
Have we grown up but not grown deeper?
Have we grown older but not wiser?
These questions are hard. They can pull at our hearts, leaving them wavering somewhere between nostalgia and discomfort, anticipation and hope. We look back on who we were, trying to determine if it was who God intended us to be. We look at who we are now, the life we’ve lived in the many years and wonder if that’s who we are supposed to be.
Experiencing Old Pains in a New Age
The most extraordinary potency of going home is the way in which we are quickly pulled into the past.
Regardless of our homes—our experiences in high school or college or as a kid—all of us have pasts filled with mistakes and hurt, seasons of pain, friendships lost, fights unresolved, maybe even regret.
And these moments of humanity can often linger in the places we no longer live, only to resurface when we return. Maybe on a night drive or a confrontation with our parents, perhaps as we drive past the house of a high school boyfriend or an old football field.
Memories can bring sharp pain, longing and nostalgia. And just because it’s Christmas doesn’t mean these feelings are easy to deal with.
Watching The World Around You Move Along Without You
One of the strangest sensations about heading home for the holidays is the innate excitement and joy that comes with it—the anticipation of seeing family: nieces and nephews, brothers and sisters, new babies, grandparents, friends you’ve had since you were 9, and everything in between.
And then there’s the reality of what actually awaits you—which doesn’t quite always match the anticipation.
People move away. The best friend from middle school now goes to New Jersey for Christmas, because he got married and that is his Christmas home now.
Families grow up. Your dad moves a little slower than you remember.
People grow, relocate, find new homes and different locations to put down roots. Our old hometowns, once filled with familiarity so entrenched within us we thought it would never leave, can suddenly feel like foreign lands, occupied by a new generation learning to grow into the people God made them.
And all of us are growing away from our memories—being reminded bit by bit that we are not, in fact, infinite or capable of endless youth as it felt when we were 16. Understanding that the world around us is constantly getting older as we do is sobering in so many ways God meant it to be, reminding us daily of our humanity and our need for Him and the life that He provides.
And while Christmas is a time of hope and beauty and future, it can also be a challenging time, a season of memories and traditions that simply make coming home for the holidays hard.
Sometimes there is a new empty chair at the dinner table, or a prayer said for someone who couldn’t be there.
Sometimes we return home to those who are sick and dying instead of rushing home to drop our laundry off and head out with our friends.
It is the blessing and burden of growing up, of growing older and watching the world move along even when we are not there to witness every moment of it. It’s the moments at home like this that remind me: maybe our homes are often more transient than we thought, and maybe God never intended growing up and growing old to be as hard as it can be. Maybe going home for the holidays is hard because we’re still on our way to our true home.
And isn’t that what Christmas is all about?
Liz Riggs is a freelance writer and English teacher in Nashville, Tenn. She eats stories like grapes and has a very serious appreciation for macaroni and cheese. Follow her on Twitter at your own risk @riggser.