When you pack up your tiny London flat, hug your family goodbye at Heathrow airport, and fly across the world to a new life (and a new husband) in Chicago, you don’t fully comprehend how much you’ll miss the people and the place you think of as home. At least I didn’t, anyway. Of course, I knew I would miss them, but I didn’t know it would feel like a constant, dull ache that gets most pointed and painful on Christmas.
No shade to America, but you can’t hold a cinnamon-scented candle to the British Christmas I know. We don’t have Thanksgiving, so by the time December rolls around, we have a lot of pent-up holiday energy to unleash in the form of copious amounts of tinsel, rousing novelty songs, and tacky festive sweaters (jumpers, as we call them). We have a lot of weird food, including Christmas pudding, which we cover in alcohol and set on fire. We partake in traditions like crackers, or cardboard tubes containing small amounts of gunpowder, so when you pull them apart, they go “bang!” and open up to give you a rubbish plastic toy, a joke, and a paper crown.
But even without all that stuff, Christmas is the time when I most want to be home, in the place where people understand me without having to give them context (see cracker explanation), where I’m not the only one with an accent that I still can’t hear myself, revealing me as an outsider every time I speak.
Even though I’ve lived in the U.S. for two years, the place I think of as home is London.
It was the first place I chose to live, not the town my parents happened to reside in when I came along, or the one where my university was located. London was the first city whose old, winding streets I learned first with my feet, and then with my heart. Knowing that I was there because I chose to be there—that this was a Big Decision I alone had made—gave me the confidence to take control of my life. It gave me permission to grow into the person I wanted to be. Getting to know the city itself became a significant part of that process.
Among all the things that are uniquely London—the world class museums, the impressive architecture, the historically significant monuments—I discovered things that you only appreciate if you live there. Supermarkets, my doctor’s office, the fastest route through the Tube station, the swimming pool built in the 1930s, the office building where I worked. When I lived in London, I was simultaneously someone fully in awe of the history around me, and a local who blended into the ebb and flow of the city’s mundane routines.
I only get to go back to London once a year, and I always choose to go for Christmas.
I can’t resist the general sense of excitement and goodwill spreading through the city like the scent of gingerbread from a bakery window. The perpetually grey skies are lit up by string lights the length of the major streets. All the window displays, which are mini art galleries in themselves, twinkle with silver and gold wares, tempting you to come inside. You can catch the first verse of Slade’s “Merry Xmas Everybody” (the greatest Christmas song of all time) in one shop, and the chorus in the next. Everyone is unusually jolly (unless they’re caught up in the crowds on Oxford Street). It feels like the whole city takes a break from its usual constant rush.
But as wonderful as it is to catch London at its festive best, it also makes my homesickness more acute.
The oversized baubles, sweeping cheeriness, and twinkling lights hide the everyday things that made London mine. Those same streets I know so well feel slightly off when they’re decked out in wreaths of holly. It’s like they’re putting on a show we both know isn’t real. When I lived there, I didn’t need a giant Christmas tree in Trafalgar Square or a sparkling reindeer in Covent Garden to make the city feel magical. Even on its greyest, rainiest, chilliest January (or July) day, London was beautiful to me.
Being back only for Christmas makes me feel like I’m a guest, like someone who is only allowed to see the city at its glittering best.
I’d rather be like family, one who is allowed the intimacy of seeing London take off its fancy Christmas costume, showing the cracks of age and wear beneath. Getting this filtered snapshot once a year reminds me that I stepped out of the ever-moving flow of life. Now, I’m just another tourist, out of step with the current that kept going without me.
Still, as a ruby-slippered Kansas girl once said, there’s no place like home. And there’s no time like Christmas. Not a day goes by that I don’t think about my family, my friends, and my city, and I’ve counted down the days until I get to see them all again. The moment my plane touches down at Heathrow, I feel a comforting sense of belonging, like putting on shoes that have morphed to perfectly fit my feet after years of wear. I know I only get to be there for a week or so, and I’m going to soak in all its lit-up tinseled glory.
To really appreciate your home, sometimes you have to leave it, and I’ll take London for Christmas if that’s all I get.