As a child growing up, Christmas was pure joy and delight.
The season began always the week after Thanksgiving when the director of our church’s Christmas play handed out the pageant parts. I always got the biggest part, because I enjoyed memorizing while the rest of the kids preferred making better use of their time.
I was two years out of college when I spent my first Christmas away from home. And, while it was one of the loneliest, most miserable days of my life, it was keenly important. In the midst of that lonely, snowy Christmas day in Washington, D.C., I first learned the true meaning of a place called home.
The events that conspired to keep me away from my family that Christmas more than 25 years ago began six weeks earlier. I was a sportswriter for my hometown newspaper, The Times, and had returned from covering the Georgia-Auburn football game on a Saturday night. It was close to midnight when the editor breezed by my desk, stopped suddenly and turned back to me. He snapped his fingers.
“Oh, USA Today called today and they want you in Washington on Monday to work on loan,” he said.
Our newspaper was owned by Gannett, publisher of USA Today, the diamond in the center of the crown. The national newspaper was known for scouring the lower ranks of its daily newspapers to find strong talent.
You were loaned out first. Then, if those few months worked out, you were offered a full-time job.
From the moment I moved to the little studio apartment in the Foggy Bottom section of the town — two streets over from Georgetown — I loved D.C. It was made for a history buff like me. So I spent free days at the Smithsonian, Lincoln Memorial, Library of Congress and such. I loved it.
Many mornings, I walked to work eight blocks away. I sauntered through the heart of Georgetown, crossed the Frances Scott Key Bridge over the Potomac River, then up the hill to the modern, high tower of Gannett and USA Today. It was a winter of extreme cold, and I had never known such chill that went straight to my bones, especially when the wind blew off the Potomac and caught me square in the face.
One night, I walked to the Jefferson Memorial and was stunned at the number of men in tattered coats sleeping while lying atop grates through which steam drifted up, giving them a bit of warmth. I had never seen homeless people.
That Christmas spent in Washington, D.C., was lovely and adventurous. Georgetown was magical, covered in snow, green wreaths, red bows and white lights. It looked like a storybook.
I attended the lighting of the National Christmas Tree. It was the most memorable, because I mistakenly wandered into a restricted area. So, a kind Secret Service guard gently redirected me. In those days, the White House wasn’t barricaded like it is now. So I was able to stand close.
My spare time during the days leading up to Christmas was filled with gift shopping at Garfinkel’s, a legendary but now out-of-business D.C. department store.
I also walked two blocks from my apartment to the Kennedy Center to watch holiday movies. A theater in the Kennedy Center seats 200, so I watched “Christmas In Connecticut,” “White Christmas” and “Meet Me in St. Louis.” I loved the discoveries of that holiday season.
But it wasn’t home. I was scheduled to work Christmas Eve and Christmas Day in a half-empty newsroom. I have never been lonelier as I lunched on a pack of crackers. My heart ached to be in the middle of the merriment and even arguments with my family.
The next day I flew home. When I walked off the plane and there stood Mama, smiling, I discovered the power of home. Especially on Christmas Day.
Ronda Rich is the best-selling author of several books, including “What Southern Women Know.” Sign up for her newsletter at www.rondarich.com. Her column appears Tuesdays and on www.gainesvilletimes.com.