As Thanksgiving closes for this year, most Americans turn their sights toward Christmas (or for those in their safe spaces – Winter Holiday). As I think about this season, I reflect back to my deployments while serving in the Army (all three started right before Christmas) and what my Christmases were like.
To those that know someone that has served in a theater of combat they have probably heard them refer to Christmas as, “just another day.” Some may take this as cynicism or callousness. In my experience, this is far from the truth. Others may view it as self-pity; again, I would disagree.
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To begin, it must be understood that experiences and perceptions are things that are unique to individuals. It always bothers me when someone says to another person, “I understand…” when trying to console another, as one who has not lived through a similar situation cannot ever truly understand the feelings or impact of an event. The same thing goes with military service. I had a family member once tell me that they know the sacrifices that the military must endure. I found this unintentionally condescending and conceited. I don’t blame them, I believe that they want to understand and probably deem themselves decently versed in the conceptualization of military life. In writing this article, I hope to give everyone a better appreciation of Christmas and maybe, just maybe, take some of the commercialization out of it and put some actual meaning back into it.
First and foremost, what is Christmas? I don’t mean this as a historical or religious question but a personal revelation of meaning. For most I believe that Christmas is about family and indelible memories and emotions. When people think back to Christmas those memories are typically of their childhood when there was still true wonder and amazement. One would wake and run to the tree to see what gifts were magically placed there overnight. Then there was the coming together of the family around the dinner table. The entire process developed strong bonds of family and love. Later, for many of us who ended up with families of our own, Christmas became about creating that sense of wonder and joy for our children. It also became about spending time with our now extended families or returning to our families who we often don’t see for years on end. To sum it up it is about those moments when we can reflect on humanity at its’ finest; the incredible empathy we are capable of sharing with one another.
Let’s put this into the most poignant military example I can think of. It was the beginning of the Great War (later to become WWI) and the British forces were faced off against their enemy, the Germans. The Pope had come out and asked that all forces call a temporary cease fire for Christmas, which was turned down for obvious tactical reasons. So as Christmas day approached both sides continued with the horrific fighting that comes from trench warfare. While all war is horrid and inhumane (even when the cause is just which I believe it often is) trench warfare truly takes the most oppressing aspects and amplifies them. The enemy is often in trenches close enough for you to overhear them; you are constantly exposed to the elements; the dead lay yards from you, friend and foe alike; sleep is a rarity as the enemy is always apt to make a dash at your trench line; etc.
As Christmas Eve day slowly tapered to an end, the Allies’ side could hear the Germans singing holiday hymns. Not to be outdone, the British responded in kind. Soon, both sides were trading off Christmas serenades from within their trenches. The fighting had died away with neither side wanting to break the temporary respite. Later in the evening, per one account, the British and Germans both started singing songs together. As the evening closed one can only imagine what was happening in the minds of these men who mere hours before had been attempting to kill each other. The next morning, the two forces awoke to an eerie silence surrounding a day that proclaims peace of earth and goodwill towards men.
At this point, the record goes into somewhat of a mythological account, with historians disagreeing on exactly what happened. What is believed is that the German soldiers at one point in the line called for a meeting in the middle, in an area called No Man’s Land. The British and German traded gifts of cigarettes and chocolate, and what happened is something never seen since. Both sides got up from their lines and met in the middle, trading gifts and gestures of good will. The dead were taken off the battle field and allowed to be buried. Then, in the records of some memoirs detailing the events of the day, several men from both side started playing impromptu games of soccer. This phenomenon spread throughout the line and in some areas the ceasefire continued for days.
Our current operational footprint is somewhat different than it was 101 years ago. Today, instead of a front line where each side is across from the other, we operate out of Forward Operating Bases (FOBs). These bases are spread throughout everywhere for the most part, and consist of buildings or tents where the occupants sleep on cots or in makeshift plywood and two-by-four beds. Often the soldiers will set up small Christmas trees and place presents from family under them in preparation for Christmas morning. One cannot walk through the row of buildings without seeing doors decorated with wreaths or other such trimmings and ornamentations.
For those lucky enough to be on a larger FOB, they are treated to what I have always found to be a dinner worthy to be served in any home. The senior leadership always serves the meals to the troops on Christmas as a small token of appreciation and respect for their service and sacrifice. When possible and supported by operational tempo, the leadership attempts to maximize limited duties to give the soldiers time for themselves. Often this time is spent in things like attending church services, singing Christmas carols, bonding with their brothers and sisters in uniform, or other such activities, all in an attempt to recreate the dream of what Christmas is to them. Others attempt to throw themselves into mission related activities so that they don’t have to deal with the reality of the day.
To the deployed soldier, airman, marine, seaman, and coast guard personnel, Christmas is a day spent thinking of their loved ones. They are dealing with both their own feelings of longing and guilt for the families praying for their safety and safe return. With the advent of the internet and the ability at many locations for the military to pay for limited services, many are able to reach out via video chatting services and have a few moments of that Christmas magic to connect them to their loved ones. It is a sadness that I felt when I was a single soldier in Somalia (of course back then there was no such thing as the internet connecting us, just a 5 minute phone call), but that was nothing like the pains I felt during my last two deployments to Afghanistan once I had children of my own.
The true meaning of Christmas becomes something of immense weight when you are not allowed to share it with the ones you love. This is magnified given the other factors that those deployed to combat zones are dealing with. Guilt, pain, anger, regret, and a full host of other emotions bubble up as one thinks of their children sitting around the tree on Christmas morning wishing that they could have you home as their gift; while at the same time thinking of all those children who instead of having their parent there with them only have a folded flag serving as a reminder of the sacrifice made for their country.
As we prepare for Christmas this season I ask that everyone take a moment at some point to look at your family; whether that means your children, parents, brothers and sisters, cousins, or even close friends. Realize the blessing you have been given in this country to be able to have this sacred day with them. Hold these memories sacred and truly rejoice in the hope that one day there may no longer be a need for a military to protect our way of life. I wish everyone who reads this to have a safe and Merry Christmas and God bless not only those who put their lives at risk for us while serving in faraway lands, but also their families who sacrifice with them during this most joyous of holidays.
Matthew Wadler is an OpsLens Contributor and U.S. Army veteran. Wadler served admirably for twenty years before retiring. His service included time as a paratrooper and two deployments to Afghanistan.