IT'S DEC. 25, a day I've anticipated for the past 364. I wake up early - before my five other family members - and softly creep downstairs, an ongoing ritual from my childhood. I turn on the lights on the Christmas tree, pour a cup of milk, and simply sit on the couch taking in the holiday morning. The tree still smells freshly-cut, and the presents are untouched, a far cry from the mess of wrapping paper that soon will be left in a pile of scraps. My mind drifts back over the fall semester of my third year at the University. I can't believe so much happened so fast. I look outside at the snow falling on the wood pile in the backyard. It's nearly completely covered, but I still know what's underneath.
This image slowly morphs, and my thoughts float north a few hundred miles. The rubble of the World Trade Center also is nearly completely covered with falling snow on this White Christmas, and yet I sadly still know what lies beneath it. I forget about the presents under my family's tree, about how happy I am to have all of them home for the holidays. My mind freezes on the image of the snow-covered ruins. No blizzard can ever cover the damage, the pain, the memory. It's tough to enjoy my morning when I know that others won't.
This White Christmas won't be quite as cheerful for my friend who lost her uncle in the attack on the Pentagon. I have a buddy from high school whose father won't be home for Hanukkah. He died in a car accident after having to drive home cross-country due to closed airports Sept. 12. Other friends come to mind. While unrelated to the terrorist attacks, they too have lost loved ones recently. My heart goes out to them, and the thousands of others who have had pain in their lives these past few months. How on Earth can I enjoy opening gifts with so much on my mind? How could anyone?
I turn to the outlet that works best for me. I put on heavy layers, lace up my shoes, and head out into the cold morning for a mind-clearing run. It works. For the time being, I can concentrate on my breathing and form, pushing for that extra mile to extend the therapy session as long as possible. Finished, exhausted and sweaty, I take a hot shower. The heat in the water gets my mind racing again, this time a few thousand miles east.
It's late Christmas afternoon in the desert of Afghanistan. The wind is fierce, and the hot sun beats down on the sandstorm-covered hangers and tents that sporadically spot the desert floor. Sand may mask the area, but I know what's underneath.
Our soldiers are there, enjoying their holiday as best they can. They sit around the barracks and exchange stories with each other about how Aunt Janice always stands near the mistletoe at the family Christmas party. It cheers them up, and I'm sure they know their families miss them and pray for them each day. Their country is proud of them and wishes them speedy return. I feel sorrow that they can't be over here with us, with their families.
Dressed and hungry, I join my family for a pancake breakfast. All are cheery and talkative. Mom notices that I'm not my usual social self, asks what's wrong. Nothing, I respond. I'm just tired from my jog. I don't tell her that I just can't get into the mood. I imagine other breakfast tables where there's an empty chair, and an empty silence. It's hard to laugh and celebrate in these households.
I feel helpless, though surely in not as strong a way as the people I've been thinking of. What can I do to make their pain go away, to ease my mind? I don't feel like opening presents, like going to the movies with the whole family, or playing cards with my brothers after mom and dad go to bed. It's just not fair. Not fair that everyone can't have an ideal Christmas, and not fair that I can't let myself enjoy mine; after all, my family has nothing to mourn.
Dad starts the post-breakfast, pre-present exchange devotional reading. No room in the inn, wise men bearing gifts, God's greatest gift, et cetera. I've heard it every year, and while not tired of the beautiful story, I listen only half-heartedly.
But then, it happens. The part about the shepherds and magi crossing the desert to give their gifts strikes me. They made a long journey just to show that they care, just to see the baby in the manger that would one day embody the purest care. The answer to my holiday question lies in the original Christmas story.
All morning long, I've been upset by thoughts of others who would spend their holiday without a loved one recently lost, or who's fighting halfway around the world. I had a bad feeling their day would be void of love, of caring.
But I was wrong.
The past few months have been filled with more displays of heart than any terrorist or war could take the life out of. An entire nation has felt a unifying sense of care, and, cheesy as it may sound, that is the reason for the season. The care that permeates throughout all religions and all holidays at this time of year embodies what the nation has felt during the past few months, and it won't end when the tree is taken down, or the menorah candles are blown out. We need to extend that care far past the recent tragedy and the happy holiday and keep it a daily part of our lives. That will make even the most grief-stricken family smile.
I smile for the first time this morning, and Mom notices. Did you get all you wanted for Christmas, she asks. Yes, I say, and think to myself that this caring will go on, should go on. That is all I want for Christmas.
(Brandon Almond is a Cavalier Daily opinion editor. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.)