One of my favorite stories is one I’ve been telling since 1983, the year I spent Christmas at the Marine Corps Recruit Depot, Parris Island, S.C.; truly one of the coldest Christmases I’ve ever experienced (and this from a man who would later spend much time in near-zero climates around the world).
Of course, the Lowcountry of South Carolina is not known for cold weather. But that night the temperature was well below freezing: An icy wind was blowing off the nearby salt marsh. And I and several hundred other recruits were standing at attention for what seemed like an eternity on the island’s famous Boulevard de France waiting for the chapel to open for Christmas Eve services.
We were not permitted to shiver.
“Stop moving, mob,” snapped a drill instructor as he strolled past our formation in the darkness. “It’s not cold: It’s all in your weak little minds. Don’t look at me: Get your frigging eyeballs straight ahead.”
Another drill instructor walked toward us from the front door of the chapel. “Listen up, recruits,” he bellowed. “It’s Christmas Eve, so you’re gonna file into my chapel. When you enter my hatch, get those covers off your nasty little gourds, and keep your soup coolers shut. Do you understand?”
“SIR, YES SIR!” we shouted in unison.
As we silently moved into the warm chapel, the drill instructors disappeared.
We sat at attention and waited. In a few short minutes, a Navy chaplain dressed in khaki — a gold Lt. Commander’s oak leaf on one collar and a tiny cross on the other — stepped up to the pulpit.
“Men, be at ease: You’re in God’s house now,” he said, in the first non-threatening tone we had heard in weeks. “I know tonight you are thinking about Christmas at home. You miss Mom and Dad. You miss your girlfriend. But I want you to remember that an unbroken line of young men — just like you — has been spending Christmas Eves like this since 1775. Because of this unbroken line, our families back home are able to enjoy their warm, joyous Christmas in peace. And you here who are becoming United States Marines must never forget that.
“Now, open your hymn books with me to page…”
Books opened. Pages rustled. Then rising above a sea of shaved heads was the most heartfelt rendition of “Oh Come all Ye Faithful” I had ever heard, and probably ever will hear.
For the next hour we listened to the soft, sage words of the chaplain, our temporary lifeline to the sane world beyond the insanity of Parris Island. We sang. We dreamt of home. We fought back tears without success. When the hour was up, we quietly stood and stoically filed back out into the cold darkness and the equally cold reality of boot camp.
Twenty-seven years later, recruits — most of whom were not yet born in 1983 — are experiencing the same on Parris Island. And soldiers, sailors, airmen, and Marines deployed worldwide are singing hymns, sharing good wishes, dreaming of home, and generally making the best of whatever situation they are in as they’ve always done this time of year.
Not that this has always been easy. In fact, there have been some very dark Christmases in our nation’s military history; from that bitter December at Valley Forge in 1777 to the terrible December siege of Bastogne in 1944. But whether in peace or war, servicemembers have always taken a moment during the season, perhaps to light a candle, decorate a little tree (in one instance, I’ve learned, with cut-and-polished C-ration peanut butter cans for ornamentation), share rations with a fellow soldier, and reflect on their faith.
A few years ago, I spent part of the holidays with several aging veterans — many suffering from Alzheimer’s — at the Dorn VA hospital here in Columbia, S.C. where Christmas memories of those veterans were fading fast. Most remembered the good times. Bad times were best forgotten.
One veteran, barely able to speak, recalled only “a lot of hell” in the European theater.
Another veteran, his lips quivering with emotion, recalled “the first time this Georgia–South Carolina boy saw the Christmas lights in San Francisco. It was wonderful. I had never seen anything like that.”
The common thread in the memories of all veterans is the effort made by soldiers and those supporting them to bring the light of Christmas into dark places. Once lit, it is almost impossible ever to forget the glow.