The Meaning of Christmas

“All this was a long time ago, I remember, and I would do it again.”

T.S. Eliot, “Journey of the Magi.”

Allow me to share this Holiday memory.

Sixty years ago precisely I spent Christmas day in Tokyo Army Hospital. I had been there since just before Thanksgiving, slowly making my way back from a mysterious blood ailment, never really diagnosed, that prevented me from my scheduled discharge date, which would have had me home by then.

Still, it was a happy day for me. Finally on my feet if only falteringly, by Christmas Eve I was able to join some buddies I had made for a gathering where teen-age daughters from military families entertained us with songs, giggling, and real hugs from American girls.

Christmas morning we awoke to the sound of carols piped into the wards. I especially noticed being moved by the lyrics of “The Little Drummer Boy,” which I had never paid attention to before then. Later that morning Cardinal Francis Spellman made his way from bed to bed greeting convalescing soldiers, something he famously did every Christmas. I was grateful to be standing at bedside for the occasion, having been confined there until only several days earlier. I recall my words when he came by to shake my hand. “It’s an honor to meet you, sir,” I said.

I recall his reply more sharply. “No,” he said, “the honor is mine.” His clasp was firm, his eyes sincere, and as far as I was concerned his humble modesty that of the drummer boy. The thrill of that feeling remains with me.

Several days later I boarded ship for my homecoming at last, still wobbly and down to a hundred twenty-five pounds, but now feeling strong enough to return to civilian life, starting college, and negotiating my long return to full health.

Raised in a Jewish household where we did not observe Christmas save for a simple family gift exchange in honor of Chanukah, for the first time in my life I felt the meaning of Christmas. Ever since, I rejoice with my Christian friends on a day that remains special to me, too.

Paul Zolbrod


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