Mother, Hope and the Meaning of Christmas


Photo courtesy of Joel L. A. Peterson

It was Christmas Eve and Bob Hope flew aboard my aircraft carrier in the North Arabian Sea. And from him -- and the faith of my mother -- I learned an unforgettable Christmas lesson.

I was a young naval officer, and I had been at sea nearly four months straight escorting tankers through the Persian Gulf in the largest convoy operation since WWII. My ship, the aircraft carrier USS Midway, was just outside the Strait of Hormuz, off the coast of Oman.

Of course it wasn't just Bob. Oh no. He brought a bevy of beauties, with impossibly perfect bodies, with perfect smiles, and big hair. He came with singers and actors and beauty contest winners.

I was thinking back on previous Christmases while waiting for Bob Hope's show to begin. Thanks to my mother, there were perfectly orchestrated Christmases throughout my past. Those Christmases were white and cold on the outside, but warm and glowing on the inside. But as I waited for Bob's Christmas show to start, I felt so distant from the wonder of the season seen through the eyes that I had when I was waist high and my feet stuck straight out from the church pew as I sat.

My childhood Christmas home had all the seasonal aromas. Breads and cookies that spread their scented glory throughout the rooms and struck one in the soul with the first step inside from the winter wind. It was a smell that welcomed Christmas. But there were other aromas too. Aerosols that wafted as the house filled with elderly family females vying for access to powder rooms with fogged up mirrors and invisible -- but staggering -- perfume clouds.

When the show got underway, I was surprised at how talented and engaging Bob Hope was, live and in person. He had a brilliant sense of looking at the world to make everyone laugh at their own worst weaknesses and gaffes.

When the show was over and the laughs were done, I went to my bunkroom where I opened the presents that my mother had sent me. She'd sent a little plastic Christmas tree too. I had put it up in my tiny, crowded bunkroom. It was something that resembled the little Christmas tree in A Charlie Brown Christmas. Pathetic in a cute sort of way.

I sat -- alone -- opening brightly wrapped packages that contained the presents that represented the love and warmth of family. I opened those bright boxes in the glare of the blinking lights of the plastic pathetic tree. And in the flashing hues, I was suddenly swept with a loneliness so absolute, so profound and pure, a desperate longing that gripped my soul. And as I sat and stared amid the torn wrappings, so happy in their colors and cheery brightness, I cried.

I cried for the loss of those long-ago Christmases that were warmth and childhood. I cried for that forever fled time when I had sat between my parents at church on Christmas Eve, warm and safe and sang the ancient songs of harking herald angels and mangers that were far away. I cried for a world that needed people like me, in uniform, in harm's way, flung across the globe, separated and worlds apart.

At that moment, I missed my family as I had never before. I missed the staggering perfume clouds. I missed the fogged up mirrors. I missed the cooking smells. I missed each and every one of them in my crystal pure, absolute loneliness.

I believed in what I was doing. I believed in doing my duty. I believed that society grows and flourishes only so long as there are those who are willing to sacrifice on its behalf, whether in a uniform or in other ways. My mother had taught me this.

But that night, duty and beliefs seemed less consequential to me. In the winking lights of my plastic Charlie Brown tree, all blurred with my tears, I wondered if I wasn't on the wrong path. I couldn't help thinking that, when it came down to the brass tacks of life, there really wasn't a whole lot else that exemplified the best of life than Christmas spent with family.

But then, I also thought how someone as famous as Bob Hope -- who was such an icon -- had traveled so far to give a show to me and my shipmates. How he and so many had given up their families at Christmas to come such a long way to reach out to people like me. Just to let us know that we weren't alone -- not really -- that we were all part of a society of shared hopes, shared dreams, and shared striving.

Suddenly, I felt that I understood more clearly than ever my mother's Christian faith: that God had taken on the frailty and limited form of humanness, that He might share in human joys and pains and lonelinesses and deaths. I suddenly grasped with new insight what my mother had always said: it was in her wonder and hope and belief in the love of a God who would willingly share in the crushing mortality and limitations of His fleeting creations which was at the heart of her Christmas.

I came to understand as never before what Christmas is. Christmas is not in the glitter and props and material objects offered and received. It is not in rituals, half pagan, whose meanings had long been forgotten. Christmas would always be in the warmth of family, in the hearts of loved ones, and of those reaching out. It would always be in the drawing together against the world's cold to share the warmth that only we can give to each other. And together, to dare hope for a time when the world might not be quite so mean, quite so lonely, or quite so cold.

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Joel L. A. Peterson is the national award-winning author of the novel, "Dreams of My Mothers" (Huff Publishing Associates, March, 2015).

-- 1st Place Winner, 2015 Readers' Favorite National Book Awards (Gold Award)

"Compelling, candid, exceptionally well written, "Dreams of My Mothers" is a powerful read that will linger in the mind and memory long after it is finished. Very highly recommended."
-- Midwest Book Review

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