Home for the Holidays: A Traveler’s Perspective

If, like me, you no longer live where you grew up, going home can bring on a flood of disparate emotions: joy, nostalgia, indifference, ennui, dread.

I live in Chicago now, but I’m from a small town of about 13,000 people. I grew up in the wooded hills of Northwestern Pennsylvania, about 3 hours’ drive from any place most people have heard of. Aside from the generally laid back, friendly people, the two places couldn’t be more different. I mean no disrespect to Saint Marys, its residents, or my family, but I deliberately moved to (and plan to stay in) a large city for a variety of reasons I will not list here.

Viewing “home” from a traveler’s perspective

Still, I take at least 3 trips home annually, more when I can. For years, I spent these visits holed up in my parents’ house, just hanging out with family and not really doing much else. However, the past several years, I have been deliberately trying to reacquaint myself with what makes Saint Marys special and to understand how it’s changed. I try to look at it with more of a traveler’s perspective and to think about it as more than an obligatory destination.

Even if you do live where you grew up, there’s a good chance many of the things that make “home” special have faded into the background. It’s easy for that to happen, to take the things most familiar to us for granted and to stop thinking about why we do what we do or how we became who we are.

Your Homework

This holiday season, however, I’d like to encourage all readers to think about what makes “home for the holidays” special. Take some time to reflect, to view and experience your homeland with a new perspective,  whether you’re from a booming metropolis, a quiet backwater, or someplace in between. It doesn’t matter if you’re traveling or staying put, whether you live near or far from where you grew up.

These are some questions you can pose to yourself as you reflect on what you appreciate about your own home and heritage.

  • What’s special about your hometown and your family’s traditions?
  • What makes you proud to be a native?
  • How can you celebrate and share your roots with others?
  • If you live far from home, what about your home can you (or do you) keep with you?
  • If you stayed close to home, what positive qualities keep you there?

This exercise in reconnection and rediscovery doesn’t have to be specific to the holidays. However, because they provide a reason for people to return home and get together with family, holidays are a great time for reconnecting to our roots. We can resurrect old traditions and start new ones. We can also reflect on what exactly makes home a special place.

In the rest of this post, I’ll share some examples of what I have been doing over the past couple years to experience Saint Marys through both a traveler’s and native’s lens. I know not everyone is as lucky as I am to have such a fascinating, stark contrast between birthplace and current home 😉 but hopefully these examples will provide some inspiration.

Revisit and Resurrect Traditions

What are your family’s holiday traditions? Where do they come from?

I think it’s safe to say that all families have holiday traditions they follow every year. Some of them might even be so simple, so ingrained, that we don’t even stop to think about where they came from or why we do them.

My whole life, we’ve always had Coke (of the a-Cola variety) when we decorate the Christmas tree. As far as I know, this is because pop (as we called it) = treat; Christmas = special, so Christmas = Coke (preferably from a glass bottle). I guess we owe this tradition to my mom’s vigilance over my sugar intake and our American culture.

However, we also have traditions that go back quite a bit further, reflecting our own special mix of ancestry and origin. Two of my personal favorites are Belsnickle and Christmas crackers, representing my family’s German and English heritage, respectively.

Belsnickle

Belsnickle is so niche, there isn’t even a universally accepted spelling. It’s from an old Southern German tradition and so far, the only Americans I’ve met who celebrate it are from Pennsylvania. On December 5, you put your shoes out (preferably by a fireplace), and when you wake up on the 6th, you’ll find that Belsnickle (a version of St. Nicholas) has filled them with treats (and hopefully not coal). If you’ve heard of this and are not originally Pennsylvania, I’d love to hear from you.

Christmas crackers - a cultural gift from my English Granny
Christmas crackers – a cultural gift from my English Granny

Christmas Crackers

We learned about Christmas crackers from my English Granny. They’re paper tubes made to look like giant candies. When you pull them apart by the ends they “crack!” thanks to a bit of friction-sensitive chemicals, and inside there’s a prize, a (cheesy) joke, and a paper crown. It’s sort of like a miniature, hand-held pinata. I stock up on these at World Market’s after-Christmas sales to ensure a steady supply. 

Everyone must wear their paper crown
Everyone must wear their paper crowns

What have you stopped doing? What traditions have fallen by the wayside?

As we get older and busier, the things that seemed special to us when we were younger may not seem so magical anymore. Every year my family has been putting up fewer decorations and leaving some dishes out of the dinner menu, and it has started to feel like something is really missing. I’ve been actively trying to re-introduce some of the old traditions into our holiday repertoire.

Having new faces at the table is a great motivation to showcase your traditions for your guests – and for yourselves. When I was in grad school, some friends from China and Korea joined my family for Thanksgiving weekend. We pulled out all the stops on the meal and on the subsequent decorating of the Christmas tree (not one ornament left in the box!). It was fun and brought back a lot of memories. It also forced us to think about and explain exactly why we do what we do.

Visit the Main Attractions

What makes your hometown special? What would a guidebook say about your town?

Though it’s hardly a hotbed of tourism, good ol’ St. Marys, PA does have some unique assets that I appreciate more now that I don’t live there. In the heart of Elk County, it’s is known for its Bavarian roots, the beauty of the hills and forests (especially in the fall), its hunting culture, and Straub brewery with its “Eternal Tap.” Every visit home includes a stop at the brewery for some samples and several meals of my parents’ German-inspired cooking, most of which include “locally sourced” wild game. You can’t get that stuff just anywhere.

Straub Brewery, St Marys, PA
Straub Brewery, Saint Marys, PA: you had me at Eternal Tap, but the drive-up service is nice, too.

True to its name, Elk County also has … elk. It is home to “the largest free-roaming elk herd in the Northeastern United States.” The locals and visitors alike have the “exciting opportunity to see these magnificent animals in their natural habitat.” There’s even a new visitor center and specially plotted out elk viewing areas. I don’t go out looking for elk every time I’m home, but they are definitely something to behold.

Elk County Pennsylvania's elk herd
Elk County Pennsylvania’s elk herd

Try Something New

What haven’t you done before, even though it’s always been there?

There’s always something we’ve overlooked or taken for granted, even though it’s always been there. It might be the most mundane thing, but go ahead and give it a try. My example of this is something that I assume most “normal” families do, but not mine.  

Last year at Christmastime, my parents and I were getting some serious cabin fever, so we did something we hadn’t done since ET was in the theaters (please don’t do that math, I was very very young – very young). We went to a movie – together. The latest Star Wars installment was playing at the recently renovated, two-screen, historic Apollo theater in the heart of Saint Marys, and the parents decided we should go. We bought advance tickets (total cost: $12) and settled in to review the original trilogy in its entirety before heading downtown.

It’s amazing how special it felt do something so “normal” that I’d never done with my parents. Who knew how much my mom would love Star Wars? It was also kind of neat because the theater renovations included some old photos of the space taken well before my time, stuff my dad remembered from when he was a kid.

What’s new in town?

Sometimes the locals don’t even know what’s new since people tend to stick to their habits and routines. Take beer for example. Straub Brewery and its flagship lagers have been around since 1872, but now the wider craft beer revolution is making serious inroads. I have made it my mission to ensure that my mom tries the new Straub offerings as well as all the restaurants, bars, and (especially) breweries that have started cropping up in Saint Marys and the surrounding towns. It’s the least I can do for her. (Cheers!)

Take Your Walk Down Memory Lane

This sounds like a no-brainer. But who really takes the time to actively relive memories where they happened anymore? Whether it’s holiday-related or not, it’s time to make it a point to revisit some of the special places, things, and activities.

I personally like to take a literal walk, especially because we usually drive around town. It slows me down so I can really take a look around at what’s changed and what’s stayed the same. I like to think about how I’d explain these things’ significance to someone if I were giving them a tour. I’d want to help them understand why they matter in general, not just to me.

Find Your Deep Connection to the Place

Not only can we relive our own experiences, but we can also tap into other people’s memories. Dig into some local or family history; really listen to the old stories. Even if you’ve heard them all a thousand times, have your relatives tell their stories again. Ask them questions; try to understand the things you’ve always taken at face value.

My mom has spent years researching both sides of my family tree, so I have no shortage of access to this sort of information. You don’t have to spend years digging like my mom did (or years listening to it like I did), however. Even a few succinct stories can help you deepen your connection to your home.

Aunt Francie and her boarding house
Aunt Francie and her boarding house

Some of our favorite stories are about my mom’s spirited Aunt Francie, her grandmother’s younger sister. Born at the end of the 19th century, Francie was a bit of an iconoclast. She was a mother, a businesswoman, a farmer, a pillar of the community, and a philanthropist of sorts. She smoked, wore pants, and didn’t go to church (because it was too far away). The last time I was home, my mom, aunt, and I took a road trip to Aunt Francie’s farm so I could finally put the stories in context.

Aunt Francie's military surplus Ford truck
Aunt Francie’s military surplus Ford truck in its final resting place

Bring Something Back

Souvenirs aren’t just for vacations. I know this sounds like a lofty meaning for fairly mundane objects, but even the simplest things can serve as bridges between places, people, cultures. Artifacts can help us understand where we are and where we came from. And it can go both ways – we can bring things to our home and take things from our home.

One of my favorites is, naturally, beer. Because my mom loves trying new things (yeah that’s why), I always take her interesting specimens from Chicago breweries or my favorite bottle shops. I have also been known to bring Straub beers back to Chicago, especially the traditional Lager and my new favorite Kölsch.

Food is my other favorite medium for cultural exchange. I often bring my mom treats from my travels; this year it’s Icelandic licorice chocolate bars (you read that right). On the flip side, my Chicago friends enjoy the homemade smoked cheese, venison jerky, and sauerkraut my parents send back with me.

Homemade canned tomatoes, sauerkraut, and sour beans
Homemade canned tomatoes, sauerkraut, and sour beans – available only at the source

What do you think?

So… what are your thoughts on this? What are your answers to the questions I’ve posed? Has this inspired you to take a different look at your home? Or have I just spent 2,000+ words overanalyzing something no one wants to think about? 🙂 I’d love to hear from you in the comments!

In any case, Happy Holidays, wherever they may take you!

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  • Oh, Jean, you have really hit it, right at the heart. I’ve returned home to St. Marys,PA at least once a year since I migrated west in 1970. Frequently lately, my visit has been enriched by a surprise visit from you! I’m looking at the whole going home thing from a fresh perspective now, thanks to your beautiful 2000 plus words. I look more forward than ever to going home again. This time I will look at it with new eyes, and hope you will be part of the view. Thank you! You are incredible. And I’m not just saying that because you are my niece. Love, Aunt Kiki.

  • Great job, Jean. You have become quite the world traveler. Your parents keep me posted regarding your adventures and even share some of your photos with me. I’m proud of you and your adventuring spirit.
    I used to live in St. Mary’s, (grew up with your father) and left home for the same reasons you did. Now I live in Colorado. Sadly, I haven’t been “home” since my father passed several years ago. Probably will never go back but St. Mary’s will always be a special place.