Digging through Christmas decorations, I recently came across a printout of a chapel talk I gave as a college professor at St. Olaf College ten years ago for a Norwegian Christmas service. Christmas is sort of unavoidably in the air these days, so I thought I'd share it with you all for sentimental reasons. Those of you who know me, will understand that this issue of 'homesickness' is complex to me, to say the least. And you'll know that to me it's all about jól and not Krist-messe (Christ-mass).
I suspect everyone feels homesick at Christmas. Even those who're "at home" experience, I think, a sense of homesickness; a yearning for Christmas as it "once was."
It is a bittersweet sense of loss and nostalgia. On the one hand, it is a recognition that we can never go back to this "once was." On the other hand, it is a nurturing of this "once was." Finally, it is a suspicion that it never really existed, and that it fares better in our emotional and imaginative world.
I am deeply affected by this kind of homesickness. I have never been "back home" for Christmas since I first came over from Norway in 1995 to study at the University of Washington for a year. One year became many years, but I was still reluctant to go "home" for Christmas. When I was homesick, I ventured to the Norwegian food store "Olsen's" in Ballard; the Scandinavian neighborhood in Seattle. Then I got a job at St. Olaf and could really nurture my nostalgia with everything that went on at the colllege and in the local community, including the food from "Ingebritsen's" marketplace in Minneapolis.
In the midst of Norwegian-Americans eager to cultivate their heritage, I have found that my imaginative sense of Christmas in Norway that I experienced as a child, or at least, in my longings as a child, is safe. I am fortunate to live in the midst of a community so dedicated to its Norwegian heritage. Here I can openly confess my weakness for lefse and geitost, pickled herring and akevitt, krumkaker and all other kinds of traditional Christmas cookies.
Yet, I can't quite identify with the preconceptions of Norway in the Midwest with its focus on traditional customs from the 19th century and its lack of attention to modern Norway. It is just like "home," and yet it's not. And that is just as it would feel, were I to be "home" in modern Norway.
Home can be anywhere yet it is nowhere to be found. A colleague and good friend here at St. Olaf put it this way to me: "home is where we light a candle." More than words, this simple act of lighting a candle conveys this sense of home that I have. It is always a new, fresh attempt at creating warmth in the midst of darkness, but at the same time it connects us with the light that we glimpse from what "once was" and the light that we see shining in the future; everything that we hope to be.
Christmas is a holiday of lights, a coming home to the home we create for ourselves.
Today, I find myself surrounded by a new sense of home, created together with my husband and our child. I continue to light candles as we build our home together.