When Your Home is Not Home for the Holidays

It’s hard to plan for the perfect Christmas when you’re not where you want to be. But God knows how to love us best when we need Him the most. Take heart–He hears our heart’s cry in the middle of home, wherever we find ourselves. (excerpted from my book Living the Season Well-Reclaiming Christmas).

Moving a family of four across two states in the dead of winter is not for the faint of heart. When we sold our house in October of 1991, the closing date took longer than expected, leaving us moving smack in the middle of the Christmas season. The kids’ Christmas vacation from school was all the time we had—a two-week break the perfect window. Well, maybe perfect isn’t exactly the right word. Looking back, it was rather a bold move, but I was determined to be near family again, and Seattle was calling.

We had spent 12 rich years in our central California neighborhood, woven deeply into the community. Our daughter and son, 12 and 15, had attended school with the same group of friends all their short lives. We were firmly ensconced in the life of our church as well as a babysitting co-op whose members had become like family. School, church and community were tightly woven into our lives.

During the weeks of preparation for our move, I frantically pondered how we were going to keep Christmas as we were uprooted and on the road during the holidays. My practical husband was in a very focused Task Mode. However, plucking my children (and myself) away from our life-giving support system had me focused on our emotional needs. My son Aaron and I share a similar temperament—both of us people persons, super adaptable and outgoing. He would be fine. Our daughter, however, was at that awkward, in-between stage of adolescence. Leah had two bosom friends she’d known almost from birth, and they meant the world to her. Moving her in the middle of sixth grade didn’t help; I needed a way to ease her (well, all of us) through the coming transition, so I hatched a plan.


My husband and I began communicating with my brother and sister-in-law, the family to whom we would finally be close, and commissioned them with finding us a home to rent before we committed to purchasing a new one. Securing a temporary place to live was the biggest piece of the puzzle, but filling that home with Christmas holiday presence was going to be the next hurdle. Many phone calls and not a few letters were exchanged in the weeks before we left, and we were miraculously able to find a temporary home.

Then I asked my brother for one more favor: Could they manage to have a Christmas tree up when we arrived? And maybe some lights? I think I sent them $20. When we finally left our home in Central California and headed towards the Pacific Northwest, the anxious feeling in my stomach grew with every mile. How was our family going to adapt in this season? What had we done? And what about Christmas?

Our trip lasted well into the second evening of travel when we arrived at my brother’s house in frigid pouring rain. We stumbled into bed and woke the next morning with excitement and uncertainty about our new home. I secretly wondered whether Alex and Pam had been able to pull off the Christmas tree and lights surprise. “After all,” I thought, “they’ve had six weeks to prepare.”

A group of volunteers from my brother’s church showed up after breakfast to lead the way to our new home. We drove across town and up a winding hilly street through a middle-class neighborhood, stopping in front of a house painted a rather noncommittal color of mustard, something between yellow and gold. The rain continued to pour as we trundled out of the rented truck’s cab.

Pam ran ahead to the front steps. “Wait, wait!” she hollered. “I need to run in and get things ready.” I smiled a secret smile—maybe they’d been able to pull off this Christmas surprise after all.

She reappeared in the doorway and beckoned us. “Close your eyes!” We were led up three front steps, through the door and into the living room. I smelled cinnamon and heard Christmas carols in the background.

“Open your eyes!” There in front of us was a simply adorned Christmas tree with red paper bows and strings of popcorn. There were indeed little twinkle lights sparkling on the tree, a fragrant pot of cinnamon potpourri simmering in the kitchen and Christmas songs playing on a small tape player. I burst into tears and stood there speechless.

“How did you …?” I stammered. My husband and children stood dumbfounded.

There was a huddle of arms and hugs while more tears flowed.

“Merry Christmas,” my brother breathed gently. “Welcome home.”

That was twenty-eight years ago. I still have the red bows.


Waiting to celebrate the birth of Christ can be like that move—a slow preparing of our hearts, our minds and our homes, like the planning I undertook with my brother and sister-in-law weeks before our Christmas in a foreign land. Besides the planning and waiting, I had to give up many expectations of what Christmas would be like that year.

How do you celebrate the holiday when your living room is crowded with moving boxes? But the good news? Surrendering my ideas of perfection left space for God to surprise us beyond what we could imagine. I was forced to adjust to a new season as I looked at all the extra room and vacant corners in our new rental.

The empty walls and barely furnished rooms greatly improved my mental state, making it easier to “see.” Although I felt untethered and impatient, desperate to begin nesting in our new home, the emptiness created room for waiting.

Life is funny like that. Whether it’s clearing our calendars for an hour or cleaning out an overstuffed closet, getting rid of our “too much” leaves space for relishing and enjoying what’s to come. Or allows us to see what’s already there.

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