Heading home for Christmas is a strong tradition in this of the world. Heading home, taking time in the places we are from, connecting with friends and family members, and remembering loved ones who have died. This is some of what the pause at this time of year allows for, for those of us lucky enough to have a home to go to, and the means and time off work in order to do it . It ties in to with the story of the first Christmas, and how - thanks to Caesar Augustus' decree - Mary and joseoh had headed to Bethlehem, as everyone was required to return to where they were from.
But where is home? Where are we from?
The answer to that question might be clear for some, and less clear for others.
For me. I've always said I am from Tyrone, as I grew up there. But the real answer is a little more complicated, as it is for many people. I now live a few miles from where my maternal grandfather was born, at the bottom of the hill close to the fishing village of Greencastle in Co Donegal. Home for my grandfather was a farm on the other side of that hill, a few miles up the glen that runs to the stunningly beautiful Kinnagoe Bay, on the Atlantic facing north coast of the Inishowen peninsula. His homeplace was a very important place for my Mum growing up., and for many of us in the next generation too. The house and farm that surrounded it, were always referred to within my Mum's famlily , simply as 'the foot of the hill'.
My grandad left this small farm as a teenager - although that term was hardly used in his day. Born in the mid 1890s, he headed off around 1910 to Belfast, where he spent his life in the bar trade. I was born in the early 1970s, a few years after he died, underneath another hill he had connections with: the Cavehill in Belfast. I moved on a few short months later, first to Co Down, for a couple of years, and then to Tyrone, where my Dad was from. Having headed to college in Dublin and stayed for much longer than I ever envisaged, we- my husband and 3 kids- moved to Donegal two years ago. So home is now Donegal, but it has been many different places over the years.
Having driven past the Cavehill for years en route from Dublin to Donegal - to visit my parents who themselves had moved there in early 2000s - via Belfast, I had resolved that as one of things I wanted to do this year of my 50th birthday, was to walk up there.
This was mainly because of a story I had heard about my grandfather. When Belfast was blitzed during World War II, he and another friend, made their way to the Cavehill, and lay on top of the hill, watching the bombs fall on the city below them. I like to think that he headed there, as it was a place he was familiar with. I don't know if that's true. but it makes sense to think of someone with an ache for the hills of home, seeking out the hills they have close to them. I know I did it in Dublin, when I was missing Donegal, where I spent a lot of time growing up. I loved Howth in particular, as its cliff walk felt like the closest thing to Donegal on offer in the Dublin area.
And so I did finally head up the Cavehill with a good friend, a few months ago. Retracing the steps of my grandfather: finally walking where he had been on that momentous night, and possibly many other times too. Myself and my good friend had a bit of a laugh shooting a short video ( which you will have seen if you are reading this post from Facebook or Instagram, but not if seeing it only on my website), as we joked about it's potential social media impact. We laughed at the dramatic note added by the black and white filter. And yet, amid the joking, there was a certain lowkey drama, or rather significance to it all for me. It was powerful to walk in the footsteps of a man I have never met, but who so strongly shaped the person my mum is, and in turn, who I am myself.
And how is that relevant to Christmas? I don't fully know. At a time when having a home is something beyond the reach of so many in our country, and many millions more are displaced from their homes across the world, thanks to war and the effects of climate change, it is a reminder that to have a home and to be able to access these places of significance to those who have gone before us, is a something to be grateful for.
I also sense that in this annual return, to 'where we are from' or at least somewhere we have connections with, there are possibilities, for those of us lucky enough to be able to do it.. In ways we can't perhaps fully explain, walking in the steps of those who have gone before us, matters. Maybe it gives a sense of some kind of peace, a coming home to part of ourselves. And maybe if we take time for that, to connecting with the stories of who and where we come from, we are better able to hear and act on the message of Christmas, and what it means for a world, where everyone wants and needs to have a home to go back to.