Transportation experts estimate that 107 million Americans took the annual trek over the river and through the woods to Grandmother’s house. They opted out of the sleigh and jammed the nation’s airports and interstate highway system to join the national quest to retrieve the past.
How did we get so scattered across this land? After all, the institutions of home and family and community are strong and compelling. They are a source of security and identity. They define us as individuals, set out early in life our responsibilities to others and our expectations from them, not just laws and rules, but a familiar culture that shapes us and our neighbors -- for better or worse.
This culture comes in its strongest and purest form in fictional form. Those of us old enough to remember The Waltons television series remember a family awash in love for one another and given to “good night” wishes ricocheting from bedroom to bedroom, making certain that no one would be overlooked. It was about all the togetherness that any family could bear. But it inextricably linked the family members. And the public was entranced by it.
So, why didn’t we stay put? Well, there were powerful countervailing forces that encouraged mobility. The Great Depression brought financial forces – hunger and poverty – which drove the young jobless to larger cities in hopes of finding work where rumors drove them. The Dust Bowl forced a mass exodus of farmers from Oklahoma to the Pacific coast.
Then came World War II. The building of the American arsenal created an industrial boom, and young unemployed skilled and unskilled workers found work paying decent wages for which it was worth leaving home. And returning veterans using the GI Bill secured diplomas providing professional opportunities in communities far from the homes they left to join the military.
Attractive opportunities in large population centers, fueled by advancing technology, enticed young people from smaller home towns to venture into more cosmopolitan, industrialized cities. For the academically inclined, it was assumed that the upward mobility to a professional career was through the university system with most finding positions unlikely to be found in their home towns.
And what happens often when the socially mobile spend time away from their childhood homes is that they change. Not necessarily do they change their ideals from their formative years, but values placed on certain groups and their customs change.
It’s no accident that Ann Arbor, East Lansing, Madison, Austin, Boulder, and Tempe are known to be liberal. They are all university towns, embracing cultural diversity and the civil discourse on a variety of social issues.
What university grads often find in the workplace is that progressive corporations embrace frequently the same diversity and tolerance reflected in the marketplace they hope to impact.
That isn’t to say they forget the values learned from the home town social structure, a system designed to protect and secure the relationships among those who grew up and raised families there, they don’t. But working on a day-to-day basis with those different from oneself nurtures an acceptance and appreciation of those different in appearance and personal habits, even while the echoes of those earlier biases persist.
At holiday dinner tables across the nation, families often feel a clash of the views between the folks who chose to stay with their home towns and those who left to pursue more ambitious goals. Television comics have enjoyed lampooning American family spats. Yet the desire to meet annually to renew relationships, on the parts of those both near and far, persists.
But nowadays there is perhaps a force more powerful than distance and values that might be hostile to the family and the community. Across the nation, Americans at holiday dinners – especially young Americans – seem hunched increasingly over smartphones, full attention on the screens, oblivious to the small talk, the good cheer, the serious discussions, and the occasional arguments all around them.
In this environment family members can be too easily ignored, not even needed. If John-boy Walton lived now, he could say “Good Night” to family members and hundreds of others with a few clicks on Facebook.
For large segments of the younger generations, might their question be, “Why gather at all?”