Christmas Travels, By Sleigh and Jet

HIGH above the ticket counter in the United Airlines terminal at O'Hare, a fanciful sleigh and eight reindeer are suspended from the ceiling, poised in mid-flight. Colorfully wrapped packages fill the sleigh, and white lights outline the reindeer's airy forms. This old-fashioned conveyance seems oddly out of place in such a sleekly modern terminal. But for December travelers, it serves as a cheerful symbol of the season and a charming reminder of simpler times when sleighs, not jumbo jets, were enough to

bridge the distances between family members at the holidays.

Traveling at Christmas is the price Americans pay for mobility, for following jobs and spouses to distant cities. While friends are shopping, decorating trees, and going to parties, those whose families are scattered can be found packing suitcases, hiring pet sitters, and instructing the post office to hold the mail. However much these celebrants might wish to throw a log on the fire and stay put, the longing to gather around a family Christmas tree and plant feet under a family dinner table is enough to

prompt them to make tracks for home.

This is the season when that quaint '50s word "togetherness," so roundly ridiculed in the decades since then, stages an annual comeback. In fact, doomsayers lamenting the demise of "family values" should check the nearest airport or train station this week for reassurance that all is not lost. Nearly 34 million Americans will travel at least 100 miles during the holidays, the American Automobile Association reports - a five percent increase over last year. For all the worried talk about "alternative lif estyles" and "new family forms," what else but strong family ties impels so many people to shell out so much money for the dubious privilege of waiting in long lines and squeezing into crowded planes and trains?

For some Christmas travelers, what one friend calls "the eternal question - to go or not to go?" begins around the Fourth of July and creates a dilemma: Do you lock in plane reservations in August to be assured of a seat? Or do you wait, hoping a fare war will make the trip more affordable? Either way, nonrefundable tickets leave little room for changing plans - a restriction unknown to earlier generations of far-flung families.

Despite the crowds and the vagaries of December weather, good humor remains in generous supply. Passengers tolerate moderate delays with surprising equanimity. Flight attendants manage to smile, however wanly, as gift-laden passengers try to squeeze oversized shopping bags into undersized storage bins. Even airport personnel strive for a lighthearted approach. When one traveler asked an employee at the Charleston, W.Va., airport why mistletoe decorates the baggage claim area this year, the worker couldn' t resist responding with a bad joke: "So you can kiss your bags goodbye."

Wayward luggage, delayed flights, missed connections - every travel misadventure becomes the stuff of family legend among veteran Christmas commuters. "Remember the time we circled O'Hare for two hours?" one traveler will say, setting off a chorus of groans and laughter among the assembled relatives. "Don't forget the year we got hung up in Detroit in that snowstorm," adds another. And so the stories go, bearing lively testament to the visitors' determination to be there, keeping the family circle intact .

Yet those who spend more Christmases on the road than at home - and have the frequent-flyer points to prove it - sometimes look wistfully at friends who stay put in December and wonder: What would it be like to play host instead of house guest? And what would it be like to have relatives living nearby, not just during the holidays but throughout the year as well? Phone calls and letters have their place, but they can never substitute for a house regularly filled with several generations of a family.

Still, to a homecoming guest in a jet at 30,000 feet, every holiday journey holds the promise of new perspectives on oneself and on the family members waiting below. When the plane finally lands and the reunion begins, a traveler knows that home can be defined as where you go for Christmas - even if, as for countless non-travelers, the trip involves only a journey of the heart.

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