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Christmas spirit lives on in Afghanistan

  • Published
  • By Staff Sgt. Jess Harvey
  • Combined Forces Command - Afghanistan Public Affairs
When most people think of Christmas, they think of spending quality time with family and friends, sitting around a beautifully decorated tree, opening brightly colored gifts and eating a feast of homemade goodies. Others say that Christmas is all about giving.

All of which I believe, but if you'd have asked me two weeks ago, I'd have said my Christmas was looking rather dreary, being deployed here in Afghanistan.

After all, I wasn't going to be watching my two children, ages 4 and 1, get up all excited after seeing what had magically appeared under the tree during the night. I wasn't holding my wife and laughing as the kids tore into their gifts with a fervor that goes unmatched at any other time of the year. I wouldn't be eating all the freshly cooked turkey, ham, dressing, pies and smelling all the beautiful aromas that come with them.

Even though my Christmas lacked all of the things that normally inspire the Christmas spirit, if you ask me today, I'll tell you I had one of the best Christmas experiences of my life.

Thanks to the diligent efforts of an Army staff sergeant with whom I share living quarters and the kind words of half a dozen Afghan guards who watch over us like guardian angels while we sleep, I experienced a magic on Christmas Eve like never before.

The festivities started around 6:30 p.m., but as could be expected during a deployment and with my lack of enthusiasm this year, I arrived about an hour late to an underwhelming amount of people and a total lack of Christmas spirit. There were loads of food brought from all over, holiday cookies from home and individually packaged treats from a box, but the magic just wasn't there. Whether it be the sports talk on TV filling the void where holiday music should have been or the lack of children's laughter throughout the house, the mood just wasn't in the air.

About the time it really started sinking in that this Christmas Eve would probably be best spent sleeping in my bunk, the staff sergeant caught my attention and said, "Grab some cookies. We're going to hand them out."

In my confusion, I picked up a tray of cream-filled cookies and followed him past all the revelers, out the door, through the yard and into the alley behind our safe-house where Afghan guards work around the clock. We started handing cookies to each of the guards, who in turn, greeted us with salutations of 'Merry Christmas' and their heartfelt thanks and appreciation for our being here in their country instead of at home with our loved ones.

After our exploits as cookie Santas, we returned to our house accompanied by a few Afghan guards who'd shown up early and weren't on duty yet. A fire pit burned in the backyard. We all sat, warming our hearts and feet, to the crackle of the fire and laughter of good friends, some of whom I'd met for the first time that night. The Afghans guards shared with us their tales of love, laughter and freedoms - all gained, according to them, since the arrival of the Coalition. We shared our own experiences, jokes and thanks with them in return. We also shared food - lots of food. When one of the Afghans, warming himself next to the fire, would grab an apple or an orange, he would always offer half of it to someone else sitting nearby. I later learned this is their custom. The same went for the grape and apple juice we used to toast one another. Before long, all of my sorrows had departed and I started feeling as though I'd known these guys all of my life. As the guards started preparing for work, and I prepared to climb into my bunk, one guard, who teaches English in his off hours, leaned over to me and told me something I hope will stick with me for the rest of my life.

He said, "Tonight, my brother, you have shown me what Christmas means and now, I can go and teach my students about it."

That's when it hit me square in the heart. This night, the Christmas spirit had become more vivid and alive than ever before in my lifetime - all because of the laughs, smiles and hugs shared with my new found brethren. Christmas truly is about giving, whether it's a smile, a hug, a cookie or freedom. Christmas is also about spending time with loved ones, whether you've known them all your life, or whether you've just met for the first time. If I were given the chance to do it all over again, I would and I wouldn't change a thing. After all, my Afghan brothers helped me to understand the meaning of Christmas.