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My earliest recollections as a child were not of Christmas, but of war. I was only 5 years old when Pearl Harbor was bombed 62 years ago on Dec. 7, 1941. Yet, I remember quite vividly the response of a small, rural Alabama community when news came that one of its sons had been killed on the U.S.S. Arizona.

Even today, I don’t remember anything about Christmas of 1941, but I remember the name Charley Bibby. He was the young sailor who was killed. In fact, the incident made such an indelible impression on me that 40 years later, while on vacation in Hawaii, I made it a point to search out his name on the huge granite slab at Pearl Harbor that lists all those killed on that fateful Sunday.

Likewise, I don’t remember the Christmas of 1945. But I do remember the jubilation on that hot August Sunday afternoon when news came that the war was over.

What I remember about the Christmas of 1952 is not anything I received but that my eldest brother wasn’t there. He had been drafted by the Army and sent to South Korea at the height of the Korean Conflict. It was the first time ever that our rather large family of six children had not been together for Christmas.

It would not be the last. Thankfully, it was almost a generation before war interrupted our Christmas again when the youngest child was in Vietnam.

Now, in yet another generation, war has invaded the lives of thousands of Americans, many for the first time. The closer we get to Christmas Day, the more painful becomes a reality this season represents–peace, joy, happiness, which stands in sharp contrast to war, which represents hostility, sorrow, separation and sadness.

For example, as a result of the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, more fathers, mothers, sons, daughters and spouses will be missing from the family circle this year when carols are sung, gifts exchanged and dinner served. For many, it will be a first and possibly only remembrance of Christmas 2003.

War is not the only intruder in this happy and holy time, but it does seem to be the most enigmatic to a season proclaiming joy, happiness and peace. Other intruders include death, divorce, unemployment, homelessness, alcohol and substance abuse and crime, just to name a few.

For me, death was the intruder of Christmas 1978. It was the first Christmas without our father. As an orphan, he never knew the excitement and joy of the event until he had children of his own. Despite that sorrow, we found ourselves blessed with an unexpected gift, the precious gift of memory.

Tragic circumstances, regardless of the reasons, can serve to direct us toward what Christmas is really all about. This does not imply by any stretch of the imagination that these unwanted intruders are good. What it does proclaim is that Christmas is never bad.

In reality, Christmas is God’s way of saying “I am with you” through any and all times. For example, if the absence of a family member helps us discover or rediscover how valuable that person is in our lives, then we have received a beautiful gift. If by their absence we learn never again to take them for granted, then we have been truly blessed.

Also, such recognition calls for us to reorder our priorities. In doing so, material things lose much of their appeal. Relationships become more cherished, and meditation becomes as appropriate to the season as celebration.

For many, especially for the families of those whose loved ones are stationed in Iraq, Afghanistan, Korea and numerous other places around the world, Christmas this year will lack a degree of celebration and joy. And for others, the loss of a family member or dear friend to death or some other human conflict will loom heavy during the holidays.

Quick as a flash, or so it seems, Christmas Day is past. Extended family members leave. The tree is stripped of its decorations and tossed in the trash. Toys break.

This doesn’t mean, however, that Christmas is over. It merely indicates that those special times, events, gatherings, celebration and excitement are pushed aside for a season. In the meantime, God is still with us. That is a gift that no human condition can take away; not conflict, separation or war. Not even death. And that is reason to rejoice.

Jack Brymer of Birmingham, Ala., recently retired from Samford University after a 30-year career as a Baptist journalist. This column appeared previously in the Anniston Star.

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