When I was 19, I left Buffalo to visit my sister, Ellen, during her birthday in the second week of December. She was in her first semester of college a few hundred miles away in Potsdam, N.Y.
The bus trip took 12 hours, and all day the bus lumbered through innumerable small towns decked in Christmas lights, with Christmas trees in town squares bordered by drug stores and five-and-dimes.
Snow was deep that year, and all day I watched people trudge in the elements like astronauts walking on the moon, toting gaily-wrapped packages, talking and laughing.
Sitting in that wheezing bus gave me a first glimpse of what has become a familiar feeling. For nine Christmases since then, I have spent Christmas Eve or a day or two before driving the nine hours it takes to go to Buffalo where my family lives. That feeling of being a witness to Christmas is an old one to me now, as I have repeatedly watched the holiday unfold in small towns and big cities from the foggy windows of a car.
The trip is wreathed in a sense of anticipation. The holiday touches everything. Toll collectors smile on the New York State Thruway. Truckers wear Santa Claus hats. Every radio station broadcasts Christmas music. Even Muzak is tolerable this time of the year.
When I arrive, the holiday touches me differently as a visitor to my home town instead of a resident. The visit has more to do with memories of the past rather than my present life in New England. And so, instead of experiencing Christmas as one of the seasons of life, part of a larger continuum, the holiday becomes a not-unpleasant exercise in nostalgia, a search for a feeling remembered faintly from childhood.
That elusive sense is captured in the oddest settings. One year, two of my siblings, my husband and I trudged two blocks from my childhood home to a tiny spot called The Place at the corner of Ashland and Lexington avenues. My parents had often dined there. The windows, bright in the darkness, promised an oasis of warmth and cheer in the freezing night.
We walked in to find the place to Buffalo this year
jammed, with everyone -- waitresses, bartenders, customers -- singing "Hark the Herald Angels Sing." A waitress, smiling, motioned us to squeeze through the crowd to sit at the last available table in the back.
As we weaved through the crowd and the singing died down to laughter and animated conversation, I could see people in the place nod and smile toward us, and could hear old friends of my parents say, "Now, that's Jane Casey's daughter, isn't it?"
"Sure, those are the Casey kids." Even though I didn't know most of the people in the room, they knew me, and the sense of place and of coming home was complete.
After nine Christmases traveling home to spend the holiday with our families, my husband and I have finally decided to spend the holiday in New England. For the first time, we will spend the season away from Buffalo. We will see the lights on our own Christmas tree, reflected in the dark eyes of our 2-year-old daughter.
We will include traditions from my family, such as listening to Handel's "Messiah" and Menotti's Christmas opera, "Amahl and the Night Visitors." Pete's family opens their presents Christmas morning, so we will, too.
And perhaps we can begin our own traditions. We will tell our daughter, Anna, what the shepherds saw so many centuries ago. We will look in the night sky together and pick out the brightest star, and tell Anna stories of weary kings and gifts from the heart before sending her off to bed to listen for the sound of sleighbells.
What we have learned from traveling somewhere else for the holiday all these years is that Christmas is not a time or place.
Christmas is memory framed in candlelight, and when remembrance isn't so kind, the holiday can link us with new traditions that will become memory for generations to follow.
Christmas is within each of us.
MAURA CASEY, a Buffalo native, is associate editorial page editor for the Day of New London, Conn.