With Christmas at hand, I’m reminded of all the past Christmases I’ve celebrated—or endured—during my long life.
I especially remember the holidays during my grim childhood and teenage years. Much of the time, my mother and I were alone because my father was in prison for long periods. But she was an alcoholic. I learned early on that I had to depend on myself to get by. In those days—and especially during the holiday season when it was easier to find temporary work such as delivering packages or running errands—I always had a job to assure that we wouldn’t be completely broke. So the holidays were bleak for me. There was always heavy drinking. I found reasons not to be at home whenever possible.
Many years later, I spent multiple Christmases in Vietnam with the troops I was there to support with signals intelligence. I was under cover, usually as an enlisted man with the unit I was assigned to. I lived with the troops, slept on the ground next to them, ate C-rations sitting in the dirt by their side, used their latrines, and—to the degree possible—celebrated the holidays with them.
Christmas of 1974, after the withdrawal of U.S. military forces from Vietnam, I was living in Saigon with my wife and four children. Like Chuck, the protagonist of my novel Last of the Annamese, I went to the office on both Christmas and New Years to keep track of what the North Vietnamese were doing. I remember my unease as I watched the enemy tighten its hold on conquered territory and prepare for the final sweep that came the following April. I didn’t have much time to be joyful.
In later years, I often spent Christmas day at a charitable organization, doing what I could to bring cheer to the sick or poor. I had long since learned that I got greater joy from helping others than I did from run-of-the-mill celebrations with friends and families.
Through it all, I continued to find the holidays magical, filled with generosity and kindness not evident at other times. And so it is today. I’m grateful for a season when people show unearned love for one another. God bless us every one.