American soldiers in Afghanistan held a quiet candlelight service Monday and decorated a green Christmas tree with tinsel, candy canes and, in place of an angel, a picture of a Special Forces soldier.
Though the soldiers stationed in the chilly city of Mazar-e-Sharif, in northern Afghanistan, missed their families, many said helping Afghans rebuild their country was an unforgettable way to commemorate the holiday.
"It's a small sacrifice for what we've been doing here,'' said a soldier named Kurt, who has a wife, son and daughter back home. "To put the country at peace, I think I can sacrifice Christmas.''
The army, which has refused to say how many soldiers are based here, allowed those attending the service to be identified only by their first names.
About 50 soldiers in desert camouflage gathered in the cafeteria of the abandoned school they have turned into their compound to sing carols and pray for peace.
Many wore guns strapped to their legs. A few assault rifles and one camouflaged sniper's rifle rested on the ground next to the praying soldiers.
In the back of the room stood a green Christmas tree — a rare sight in the Afghan winter — decorated with tinsel, candy canes and lights. It was crowned with a picture of a Special Forces soldier.
"We thank God for protecting us and watching over us and being with us,'' the Rev. Michael said in his opening prayer. He also thanked God "for being with us during this great campaign.''
Michael, who flew in Sunday night from a base in Uzbekistan, led the 30-minute service, which ended with the soldiers singing "Silent Night" and holding candles in the darkened room.
More than 200 French troops living in a tent camp at the Mazar-e-Sharif airport held their own Christmas Eve celebration Monday afternoon with beer and cookies before attending Catholic Mass in a large tent.
Later, the troops, who had been complaining about their U.S. military rations, were given gift bags containing red wine, liqueur, pate and an assortment of canned French food.
Sailors Celebrate in Arabian Sea
The emotions were similar, but the scene markedly different, for the 5,000 sailors and pilots aboard the USS Theodore Roosevelt in the Arabian Sea, where little touches of the holidays stood out amidst business as usual.
Instead of cold, though, some were trying to get into the Christmas spirit in a much warmer climate.
"I am missing my dad so much. I am missing snow. I don't like warm weather and I want a Christmas tree — this is how I'm feeling,'' said Jessica Ingerson, 18, a sailor from Celoron, N.Y., who joined the ship's crew in November.
Lt. Cmdr. Pat, a E-2C Hawkeye surveillance plane pilot, was thinking of his children back in Florida.
"While I'll be preparing for my next flight over Afghanistan my kids will be just waking up and opening their presents back home,'' said Pat, who only gave his first name. "I am human and of course I will be thinking of them, but I can't let that get in the way of my mission.''
The ship's commanding officer, Capt. Rich O'Hanlon, said: "This has been one of the longest deployments I have been on ... and not seeing land in all that time, and especially over Christmas, can be hard on the crew."
The carrier's only Christmas Day operational change will be a 50-percent reduction in warplane sorties, said O'Hanlon. The Roosevelt has launched an average of 70-80 flights a day since the United States began strikes against Afghanistan's Taliban militia and Al Qaeda forces. Some planes flew with Santa Claus painted on their tail fins.
But there were other Christmas touches as well. Cooks in the ship's giant messes dished up a Christmas dinner that included turkey, ham, beef and sweet potato pie. On the flight deck, as the sun set over the Arabian Gulf, the loudspeakers blared "Happy Christmas (War is Over)" by John Lennon and Yoko Ono and "Santa Claus is Coming to Town" by Bruce Springsteen.
Back at the school in Mazar-e-Sharif, many of the U.S. soldiers worried about their families having to celebrate Christmas concerned about their husbands and fathers. Many of their wives have banded together in informal support groups to deal with the anxiety and loneliness, they said.
Other soldiers said that when they thought of the victims of the Sept. 11 attacks, their cold Afghan Christmas did not seem so bad.
This was the first Christmas a soldier named Dan spent away from his wife of three years.
"I was kind of bummed," said Dan, who works as a liaison with local forces in this Muslim country.
But an incident Monday afternoon made him change his mind, and gave him the best Christmas gift possible, he said.
Dan had spent the week trying to explain to an Afghan soldier the meaning of Christmas.
About two hours before the service, the soldier pulled him aside and said that in the spirit of the holiday he wanted to give him a message: "Thank you for your gift. The gift you've brought us. The gift of peace."
The Associated Press contributed to this report.