What Christmas is All About

author in military uniform in front of camouflage netting and a Jeep
I took my first 18 Christmases for granted. Number 19, a couple of continents away from my family, made me appreciate what I was blessed with.

Even though it’s been years since I’ve watched A Charlie Brown Christmas, I was still pretty dismayed last year when Apple TV+ hijacked it, along with all the other classic Peanuts specials, forcing anyone who wanted to watch them to fork over some cash. Apparently Apple got the message, and changed course; you can see all the old shows again on PBS this year. Maybe Apple’s heart grew three sizes that day. Yeah, I know, we’re talking about Charlie Brown and I make a Grinch reference. I made it because when I was a kid, every year on a cold December night, Charlie and the Grinch were a package deal. One after the other. One more signpost on the road to Christmas. One more reassurance that everything’s right with the world.

My first Christmas season away from home I was 19, just about halfway through my three-year army stint. A few lucky troopers in the company got Christmas leave, but the majority of us were stuck in South Korea on a December night when it was too cold to venture into Tongduchon, and anyway the crap beer and the borderline sex trafficking in the bars held no attraction for me. A few of us were hanging out in the company dayroom, a place with a pool table, a rack of magazines and a TV.

Maybe because they had a total monopoly on English-language entertainment back when TVs had tubes and nobody had phones in their pockets, it really didn’t feel like Armed Forces Korea Network (AFKN) was trying all that hard. Programming had a decidedly “throw the dart and see where it hits” style about it. Ozzie and Harriet, followed by some western, then maybe a boxing match or an Air Force Glee Club concert. Someone high up was a huge Freddy Fender fan, because an hourlong tribute to the country and western star popped up two or three times a day. Interspersed between shows were some of the most gruesome PSAs you’d ever want to see. Some hapless GI was always in danger of losing a hand on the grenade range, or losing an eye in the welding shop, or walking into a propeller blade, and just before it happened, the action would freeze and an ominous voice would say “Don’t let THIS … happen to YOU!”

So the mood was pretty glum; couple of guys pretending to read magazines they’ve read three times already; couple more guys playing a listless game of eight ball. A few more catching the tail end of some Creature From the Black Lagoon knockoff. After yet another safety reminder (“Carbon monoxide poisoning: DON’T let it happen to YOU”), we’re resignedly gearing up for some more Freddy. I start walking back to my room when I hear “Christmastiiime is here.” (What?) “Happiness and cheeer.” (No way! No freakin’ way!) and I head back to the dayroom just in time to reclaim my spot on the couch, because everyone’s drifting over and there it is. Charlie Brown Christmas. Followed, unbelievably, by The Grinch. Christmas miracle.

By the time the shows were over, the crowd in the dayroom had swelled and we began talking about Christmases back home, Christmases in Germany and Italy, Christmases in Panama, Alaska, Hawaii and Guam. We were still thousands of miles from home, but in the following days, the mood around camp seemed to lighten.  I can’t help but think those shows were the catalyst. Maybe the head of AFKN programming was visited in the night by three spirits. Or maybe we all just made a conscious effort to not get too down about circumstances we couldn’t change. However it shook out, it was a good feeling to share a hardship and get past it on the way to better times. And it also made me more appreciative of things a callow 19-year-old takes for granted, like having family around.

So, at 7:30 on a cold December 19, I plan to catch up with some old friends on WQED, be thankful for what I have and be grateful to whoever’s sitting on that dayroom couch 7,000 miles away. And that’s what Christmas is all about, Charlie Brown.

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