Change keeps coming, even to the meaning of "home for Christmas." The phrase echoes in long memories as a song of return for Americans in distant wars and a promise by their commanders: "The troops (or our boys, as they used to be fondly called) will be home for Christmas." A yearning for family reunion coincided with a symbolic season of peace replacing conflict and danger. According to ironic French-Canadian folklore, lumberjacks were so desperate to get home for Christmas they made a pact with the devil to ride on a birchbark canoe in the sky.
Now the remaining US troops abroad are peacekeepers not warmakers. They and everyone else away from loved ones want to be home for Christmas. But home is not just where the hearth is but more than ever, as in the ancient phrase, where the heart is.
And our hearts are asked to widen the circumference of what home means to us. Habitat for Humanity International enlists former President Carter, hammer in hand, among volunteers and supporters building and renovating homes for those in need. It has spread to more than 50 developing countries, with 1,000 affiliates in the US and 26 in Canada.
The Ottawa affiliate runs an annual "Home for Christmas Campaign." It builds and renovates structures so people will have homes to go back to.
Ottawa has also been the site of an annual "I'll Be Home for Christmas" Gala. This supports Operation Go Home's efforts not to bring home the troops but to restore runaway young people to their families. Operation Go Home began providing information and transportation to youngsters on the streets of Ottawa 25 years ago. It went national five years ago.
In any country many channels bring help to the homeless from those who can go home for Christmas - or for the holidays of their choice - and see themselves as working partners in the larger human family. Some share a sense of togetherness and peace on earth, though the home being returned to is a broken one. As in the childhood moments recalled by comedian and social activist Dick Gregory in his unsparing autobiography:
"It's a sad and beautiful feeling to walk home slow on Christmas Eve after you've been out hustling all day, shining shoes in the white taverns and going to the store for the neighbors.... You take the long way home, and Mister Ben, the grocer, says: 'Merry Christmas, Richard,' and you give him a present out of the shopping bag, and you smile at a wino and give him a nickel, and you even wave at Grimes, the mean cop. It's a good feeling."