There is nothing more bittersweet than Christmas decorations while deployed. Last week, I wrote about the importance of Christmas traditions. The power such traditions hold was most evident to me while I was deployed. Simply the sight of the decorations made me feel somehow connected with my family and my past. Such connections are critical for building resiliency.

In each of my deployments, the unit of which I was part put up Christmas decorations in their office buildings or work areas. My first deployment, leaders actually bought Christmas lights, garland, an artificial tree, and decorations. In most of my later deployments, such decorations were part of the property they signed or handed over to the next unit. I can still remember returning from convoys or battlefield rotations, seeing the decorations, and feeling like I had come home (at least home away from home). I remember the joy of lining up in the dining facility decorated for Christmas to eat a Christmas dinner. I loved going to the chapel services and singing Christmas carols. Of course, these activities made me think about and miss home, but they also gave me a sense of normalcy in that, even in the midst of war, Christmas still comes, and this is a comforting feeling.

I especially remember the gifts I received from home because they kept me connected with my friends and family. I remember my first deployment receiving a miniature artificial tree and ornaments, which I set up in my CHU and decorated while playing Christmas music. My parents and my wife sent me gifts already wrapped with instructions not to open until Christmas. It was quite a joy having presents under the tree, let me tell you. Every year I was deployed, my mother sent me homemade fruitcake. Some may cringe at this, but all of my older Southern friends lined up for a slice because they knew it was the only way they were legally getting booze at Christmas. I received dozens of Christmas cards, which I hung with care on a string, just like I did at home. These touches meant the world to me because they reminded me of how much support I had during the time when I missed my family the most.

One of the special memories I have is the feeling of connectedness with my family and with Christmas in general. Of course, I felt loved and appreciated, but I also felt a part of a long line of such Christmases. My grandfather told me once, when he was deployed to Europe in World War II, that my grandmother had sent him a bottle of Southern Comfort at Christmas, which he shared with his buddies. I have seen the Christmas cards my grandparents sent on his return, including one with them, my mother, and my aunts and uncles around a Christmas tree when young. I have photos of myself and my siblings and cousins crowded around my grandparents when old. Christmases come and go with the years, yet they remain the same, with similar decorations, similar poses, and similar memories from one generation to the next. This is what makes such holidays so important for resiliency. You realize that you are part of something greater than yourself stretching across generations.

More than that, however, I remember how Christmas away from home made me feel connected to Joseph and Mary. They also were away from home on the day of Christ’s birth. They were staying in a hovel in the desert, while around them tyrants were seeking and killing small children. Like the shepherds and wise men, I also came bowing before the Christ child on Christmas Day. Like the angels, I was singing hymns to God in celebration of that day. In that moment, I drew nigh to God because I knew that, even in the midst of great suffering and loneliness, God still moves as He did that day. No matter what I was going through, Christ was still born, and God still was working in me. This more than anything was what I recalled when I saw those Christmas decorations in the Middle East.

Today, I am home, but I still remember how much more important Christmas was for me during those times. Even now, there are some who are far from home. Many others are isolated because of their health. While we celebrate and gather with family, let us always remember those who are missing from the table. Pray especially that Christmas in the trenches will be meaningful and joyous to those who serve.

© 2020 J.D. Manders


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