The Language of Home


Autumn’s chill prompts a return to one’s ancestral, educational or spiritual roots

By Noah Salt

Few words or phrases express their meaning quite as prosaically as the word “homecoming,” a word that comes down to modern usage from 14th century Middle English that simply means to return to one’s home or place of origin — but holds a world of meaning beyond that.

To most of us this time of year, homecomings of one sort or another are an experience shared by various groups of like-minded folks ranging from college alumni to church groups.          

Every autumn, a time when one is inclined to turn inward, high school and college homecoming courts celebrate students who exhibit passion and support for the old alma mater. They typically fill up autumnal weekends with reunion gatherings, tailgates and halftime presentations at football games designated as the highlights of homecoming weekends when homecoming queens and kings are crowned.

The origin of homecoming celebrations seems to be a topic that elicits no shortage of partisan debate. Harvard and Yale began inviting alumni to return to campus for their annual football game in the early 1870s, but at least three other institutions of higher learning — Baylor in Waco, Texas, Missouri and Illinois — lay proprietary claim to conducting the first “Coming Home” celebration on their campuses around 1910. For the record, the NCAA and makers of the pub game Trivial Pursuit give the nod to Old Mizzou.

Regardless of who was first, such weekends hold similar social characteristics built around the drama of a football game — bonfires, pep rallies, dances, reunion gatherings, parades, picnics, game-day tailgates and fundraisers — all aimed at ginning up school pride, uniting sports fans and welcoming back alumni.

The tradition caught on nationally in the 1920s and today there are few academic institutions either large or small that don’t celebrate some form of homecoming in their own style and tradition.

Homecomings of a higher sort also happen every late September or early October in Protestant churches across America, annual gatherings meant to celebrate a particular church’s heritage with a special remembrance service and often a picnic on the grounds or the fellowship hall.

In this part of the world, with their deep ancestral roots to mother Scotland, many Presbyterian churches annually conduct homecoming services built around the “kirking of the tartans,” a beautiful ceremony in which traditional clan/family tartans are presented in a procession. Preaching is followed by a massive covered-dish supper prepared by members to welcome back former parishioners and returning family. One such event we hold particular fondness for happens every October at historic Old Bethesda Presbyterian Church in Aberdeen, with its hipped roof, two-stage bell tower and historic burying ground that dates back to the 18th century. Similar homecoming kirkings take place across the Tar Heel State come October.

When native son Thomas Wolfe opined that “you can’t go home again” — the title of his posthumously published 1940 novel taken from a sprawling unpublished larger work called The October Fair — we can only surmise that poor Thomas never had the pleasure of a good tailgate at Wake Forest or Chapel Hill (or a dozen other football-mad campuses of the Old North State), or at the very least, may not have experienced a sweet kirking luncheon on the lawn.

Otherwise, he might have given up ruinous drinking and lived to a ripe and productive old age, returning year after year to celebrate the season with dear old friends at their annual autumn homecoming.

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