We don’t do it every year, but one of my favorite times to travel to my parents’ home in Virginia is on Christmas Day.

When I was young, driving anywhere on Christmas Day seemed like a terrible idea. Time at home, hunkered down with family and gifts and goodies was what I considered to be the ideal scenario. Venturing over the river and through the woods was low on my wish list.

But times change, families disperse, and new realities come into play. Adaptation rules the day in our modern world, and I now find that holiday travel gives me a warm and fuzzy sense of camaraderie with my fellow man that I hadn’t anticipated. And I mostly owe that realization to the Waffle House.

When you travel on Christmas Day, you and the other cars on the highway soldier bravely forth with the knowledge that things had better go well, because there’s no guarantee that the next exit will offer salvation. Most places are closed, but the one thing you can count on is that the Waffle House will be open with a warm welcome and a hot plate of indulgence at the ready.

I would wager that there may be no more unifying experience than walking into a place on the side of the highway where nobody knows your name, where the only shared truth is your baselessness, temporary though it may be, on a day when we are most aware of our human need for connection.

That communal need runs deep, sometimes so deep that we aren’t aware of it pulsing in our veins. Some people find connection in family or friends, in churches, bars, sports or hobbies, or simply in social media, but we all seek assurance that we are not alone in this journey.

When you walk into a Waffle House, you are instantly among friends. Goodwill abounds, even if you have not a single thing in common. People of all types surround you and you can almost hear the Whos of Whoville singing “Welcome Christmas” to the tune of whatever country song is on the jukebox. Christmas is a happy time, and for a moment all differences are put aside as you share a meal, pedestrian though it may be, served by a jingling waitress who fondly dubs you “honey.”

I could call Waffle House on Christmas Day the Great Unifier, but someone else already holds that title, and you are likely to hear her voice lilting over the Waffle House crowd from that jukebox in the corner at any given time — Dolly Parton.

This year, as Ramsey and I rolled north through Appalachia, we listened to a podcast that is guaranteed to warm your heart titled “Dolly Parton’s America.” I highly recommend it, even if you don’t consider yourself a fan. It is a fascinating look at her life and very clearly reveals the degree to which she has encouraged people to come together throughout her extensive career.

Of course, we were driving straight through Dolly’s countryside and she loomed larger than life on numerous billboards along our path, hawking everything from her Dollywood theme park to her new series “Heartstrings” that was recently released on Netflix. Though her childhood was modest, Dolly has built quite an empire, enjoying a prominent place in the spotlight since her career-making decision to accept an invitation from Porter Wagoner to join his prime time show in 1967.

Several months ago I happened upon her 1977 interview with Barbara Walters and was struck by her depth of character and wisdom, given her downright comedic bombshell persona. I grew up appreciating Dolly as a musician and cultural icon in my mostly country music loving family, but I’d never heard her talk about the philosophy behind how she presents herself and the way that she approaches the world.

Dolly enjoys the most diverse fans imaginable, crossing generations, genres and political lines in ways that very few performers can. In the podcast series there is much discussion of what her nephew christened “Dollytics,” referencing her ability to avoid political statements while endlessly promoting cultural statements of love, caring and respect for all. In one episode she jokes that she can always use a good boob joke to get out of answering a pointed question about current political affairs. Now that’s what I call talent.

Dolly is popular among the conservative Southern culture to which she was born, but she also reaches people far beyond. One of my favorite stories from the podcast is the revelation that while Nelson Mandela was imprisoned at Robben Island, he convinced the guards to allow him to play music over the intercom system and one of his favorite songs to play was “Jolene” by Dolly, a haunting ballad about a woman’s plea to the potential “other woman.”

I got chills imagining the guards and prisoners sharing a moment, listening as Dolly begs for mercy from the woman who has all the power to ruin her happiness. A great unifier, indeed, in a way that I never in a million years would have imagined.

At the Waffle House, whether you prefer your hash browns scattered, smothered or covered, you can come together at any hour of the day or night, even on a sacred holiday, and enjoy a sense of oneness with others.

In her classic song “Two Doors Down” Dolly sings:

I think I’ll dry these useless tears and get myself together

I think I’ll wander down the hall and have a look around

‘Cause I can’t stay inside this lonely room and cry forever

I think I’d really rather join ’em two doors down

The next time you are feeling alone and sorry for yourself, maybe wander over to the nearest Waffle House and drop a few coins in the jukebox to play a Dolly tune or two, and enjoy a unifying moment with your fellow journeyers and remember that we are rarely truly alone in this world.

Monica Sheppard is a freelance graphic designer, beekeeper, mother and community supporter living in Rome.

Recommended for you