Holidays come, and holidays go; with vignettes or snippets of memorable moments clinging to the neurons of your brains to resurface at some point in the future as fond memories. Looking, like Scrooge, at the ghosts of Christmas Past, I have many of these.
There’re the fun times as a kid in rural East Texas, running barefoot over the red clay hills and through the lush green pine forests on Christmas day, playing with our new Red Ryder BB guns. Playing cowboy and Indian; switching from culture to culture blissfully unaware of how close we were to that tragic chapter in our nation’s history, when a proud people were sacrificed at the altar of the westward march and progress.
I remember my teen years; a young soldier in Bavaria seeing ten-foot snow drifts for t he first time. The colorful traditions of southern Germany at Christmas time were unlike anything I’d ever seen before. Singing German carols and drinking large quantities of beer.
Later, I remember celebrating Christmas with my kids in many different places; Thailand, China, Singapore, Korea, California, North Carolina. We moved around like a gypsy band, but somehow we always found time for a tree, presents for the kids, and time to sit around and just enjoy each other. But, my most memorable Christmas did not involve Santa Claus or Christmas trees or singing Christmas carols.
The Christmas of 1999, I was working in Ho Chi Minh City, Vietnam. The southern part of Vietnam, despite having a Communist government, has more Catholics than any Asian country other than the Philippines, and celebrates Christmas in a really big way. Religious themed Christmas cards can be bought on the square near the Cathedral and in the shadow of Unification Palace, a museum that celebrates the Communist victory in 1975.
That Christmas, Wataru Hayashi, the Japanese Consul General in Ho Chi Minh City, and I decided to take our wives to the Central Highlands’ city of Dalat for Christmas. Our plan was to spend Christmas day playing golf, for no other reason than our kids were all grown up and there didn’t seem to be any reason to stay in Ho Chi Minh City and watch our friends who had kids enjoy themselves, and feel sorry for us empty nesters. Golf at the mountainous course in Dalat was great. At that altitude, the air was brisk and cool in December, unlike the sweltering heat in the lowlands, and the balls soared. Later, we attended a bonfire banquet – dressed in parkas against the nippy night air – and enjoyed roast fowl and Vietnamese beer under the stars with a bunch of Communist officials who celebrated Christmas just like the common folks.
The most memorable part of that Christmas, though, was the drive up Route 20 (the infamous Highway of Death during the Vietnam War) from Ho Chi Minh City to Dalat. Along the way, we saw Nativity Scene after Nativity Scene decorating churches and houses.
One in particular sticks in my mind. In one of the small towns, the name I no longer remember, a Catholic church stood next to the Communist Party headquarters compound. On the wall of the church adjacent to the party compound was the largest Nativity Scene I have ever seen in my life. The Baby Jesus in his cradle, tended lovingly by Joseph and Mary, and observed by the Magi, with an angel hovering over all, gazing at the Communist Party building.
In a country whose government is avowedly atheist, to see these two symbols standing peacefully next to each other was the most profound experience of my life, and a vision that is seared into my brain.
Causes Charles Ray Supports
The Nature Conservancy
The Martin Luther King, Jr. Memorial