A new refrain - 'We won't be home for Christmas'

Ninety-eight years ago this week, on Dec. 17, 1903, Wilbur and Orville Wright made four short flights in a tiny plane at Kitty Hawk, N.C. Afterward, they sent a victorious telegram to their father, Bishop Milton Wright, back home in Dayton, Ohio:

"Success. Four flights Thursday morning. All against 21-mile wind. Started from level with engine power alone. Average speed through air 31 miles. Longest 59 seconds. Inform press. Home Christmas."

"Home [for] Christmas." Is there a sweeter prospect this time of year than the expectation (or, at least, hope) contained in that telegraphic phrase? Even a century ago, when travel was slower and Christmas was simpler, the dream of gathering around a familiar hearth with loved ones exerted a powerful tug.

Little could the Wright brothers have imagined, on that long-ago December day, how their flying machine would revolutionize the holidays, making it possible for far-flung relatives to speed home.

Yet this year, going home for Christmas remains an elusive dream for many. After the events of Sept. 11, some would-be travelers harbor a new wariness about flying and are reluctantly staying put. A recession doesn't help. In a time of belt-tightening and layoffs, plane tickets can be unaffordable.

The American Automobile Association projects a 6 percent decrease in holiday travelers this year. Nearly 54 million Americans will travel 50 miles or more from home - 3 million fewer than last year.

That translates into a lot of empty chairs around the table and the tree. No wonder American Airlines is running full-page ads headlined "The Great American Get-Together." Under pictures of a happy extended family, the ad offers special fares with the tempting line: "It's not too late to get home for the holidays."

But even come-ons like this won't help many of the 250,000 active-duty military personnel stationed abroad. Only 10 percent have their families with them, the Defense Department says.

Then there are the growing ranks of those who have no home at all on Christmas - or any other day, for that matter. The US Conference of Mayors released a report last week surveying homelessness in 27 cities. Requests for emergency shelter increased by 13 percent during the past year.

In other cases, battered women and their children will spend the holidays in shelters and residential programs, surrounded by caring staff members trying to create a homey atmosphere.

Finally, consider the divorced families who won't be spending the holidays together. Author Warren Farrell has even assembled a list of "Top 10 ways a dad can be 'with' his child when he can't be with his child." One poignant tip: "Leave a series of loving messages on your child's answering machine."

Exactly 60 years ago this Christmas, in 1941, Bing Crosby introduced Irving Berlin's "White Christmas" to the public on his NBC radio show, the Kraft Music Hall. The song captured a yearning for home in the midst of World War II. Two years later, Bing followed with another enduring hit, "I'll Be Home for Christmas." Add those other family-centered holiday favorites, "[There's No Place Like] Home for the Holidays" and "Over the River and Through the Woods," and it becomes clear that musical longing for a family circle abounds.

But in a mobile age, families and circumstances change. Children grow up and leave for college and distant jobs. They marry and establish homes of their own. Grandparents move to Sun Belt condos. Christmas gets reconfigured. Flexibility is paramount.

What a contrast to the stability Dylan Thomas celebrates in "A Child's Christmas in Wales." He begins, "One Christmas was so much like another, in those years around the seatown corner ... that I can never remember whether it snowed for six days and six nights when I was 12 or whether it snowed for 12 days and 12 nights when I was 6."

Talk to anyone who has ever spent Christmas away from home and stories tumble out. Some remember the experience as one they could have happily done without. Others regard it with a certain fondness. They tell of makeshift decorations, Charlie Brown trees, and improvised meals. Or they cherish memories of caring friends who opened hearts and homes to an outsider, sometimes creating lasting bonds.

At the very least, some think of it as character-building, an accomplishment worthy of a T-shirt reading: "I survived Christmas away from home." Their absence, they say, gave them a new appreciation for other holidays spent in the warm embrace of family.

What is home? Where is home? The answers vary from person to person, family to family. Next Tuesday, as far-flung relatives share holiday celebrations and love by phone and e-mail, most will agree that Wilbur and Orville's "Home Christmas" message remains an enduring ideal - even if home exists only in one's dreams, and one's heart, this year.

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