Every year brings different memories of this nearly world-wide celebration when families and friends gather to mark the occasion with the exchange of hugs, kisses and gifts … not to mention the almost imperative over-eating and indulgence in sweet things better left on the table.
Each year also brings memories, most good that are stored forever in our minds … when we were children and received the special gift that we’d wanted … when we were adults and saw the joy on our children’s faces, the excitement of waking up on Christmas morning.
Whether we want to or not, though, we sometimes remember there are those among us who don’t feel the joy of the season; those less fortunate who mark, with sadness, the passing of another season of joy. Perhaps we’ve all been there, at least once in our lives.
I know I have.
As Christmas approached a half-century ago, I knew it was going to be less than a joyous occasion. In fact, I thought it was going to be the worst Christmas I’d ever experienced. And, I was going to do everything I could to make sure it was just that – a lousy, rotten Christmas.
I suppose I was feeling sorry for myself, but I really didn’t care. Here I was, away from home for the first time as Christmas neared. Every single Christmas, up until that one on the horizon in 1966, had been spent with family and friends. Even after the death of my father three years earlier, Christmas had been a special time – Mom made certain of that.
She had filled stockings for me and my younger brother and sister (we knew what would be in those stockings; it never changed – there was an orange, an apple, a few nuts, a pair of socks and some silly little game that cost little or nothing). There were gifts under the tree and often one special gift left unwrapped that “Santa” had brought sometime during the night.
This year, though, 1966 was different.
For the first time in my life, I’d be spending Christmas without the family and without the friends that had been so important, so ever-present, in my life.
I’d been in Germany for three weeks, too short a time to even make many new friends. Yes, Christmas was looking bleak, indeed. But, I’d found, if not a friend, at least an ally.
My first Army “buddy” in Germany was John. He’d grown up in the Minneapolis area and, like me, was spending his first Christmas away from family and friends, even though he’d been in Germany a few months before I arrived on scene.
Back and forth we talked about how rotten this Christmas was going to be. We devised plan after plan, each designed to make certain it would be a bad Christmas. So, with bad attitudes, on Christmas eve we headed to downtown Nuremberg and the U.S. Army Hotel, where we’d planned to drink enough that we’d sleep all day on Christmas and never even know it had come and gone that year.
But, a strange thing happened as we sat at the bar that day. We began visiting with the piano player, who told us his story. He’d arrived, at Uncle Sam’s expense, to West Germany where he was employed at the Army Hotel. He’d been there for six years, unable to pay his way back home; he felt trapped forever away from his own home.
I fear some of what he told us was fabricated, but John and I felt somewhat sorry for this man, beyond middle age, playing piano in a hotel bar that was solely for the purpose of entertaining Americans away from home.
For what seemed like an hour, perhaps more, we’d listen to the piano player who’d relate story after story between songs he’d play.
John and I began to realize, after a few bourbon and waters, after listening to songs and stories of woe from a man we’d just met, that our problems weren’t so great. There were others, one sitting across a piano from us, who was far worse off than we were, if we could believe even part of his story.
We didn’t say much but finally left the bar and caught a trolley that carried us back to our military base, about 45 minutes away. We arrived there and found Christmas cards, one for each of us, sitting atop the Army blankets covering our cots. Inside was a bright card wishing us Merry Christmas. It was signed by each of the five other members of our small unit; we looked at their smiling faces as we read the messages on each card.
And, you know what? We decided right there and then that Christmas, even in 1966, wasn’t nearly as bad as we’d though it would be and even planned that it would be. Yup, we were all in the same boat; there was reason to smile.
After all, Christmas is Christmas, no matter where it’s spent.