I remember spending the Christmas of 1995 in New England. I and three other Mormon missionaries went caroling at a veterans’ hospital in White River Junction, Vermont. This was a long time ago, and not just in years.
We were regular volunteers at the VA hospital, so it was an obvious choice to get in some extra service time by caroling there on Christmas morning. After all, each of us missionaries was far away from home. Our sacrifice for the holiday had already been made. Caroling at the hospital would be fun, and also a great way to fill up a morning with no appointments.
If memory serves, obtaining permission to carol at the VA hospital involved showing up on Christmas morning and saying to the first staff member we saw, “We’re here to sing Christmas carols to the veterans.” Our presence was more than welcome.
We showed up in our suits and ties, sporting pocket edition hymnals and feeling sure that we were doing some good. It certainly wasn’t a sacrifice. The four of us enjoyed singing together. We sounded good, and we’d grown up singing these beloved holiday hymns. We had a natural bass and a natural tenor. The other two of us fit in between for harmony.
We tended to sing a couple of hymns at each room. At some point we joined forces with a Protestant group who were also caroling. On a theological level, this was a bit like two opposing armies singing Silent Night together during a Christmas ceasefire.
Most of the patients were older men. And most of them were alone. After we finished a set for one gentleman, he reached out to thank us despite his bedridden state. As we leaned over the bed to hold his hands, he started to cry. “Thank you for visiting me. I expected to be all alone today. Thank you for coming.”
I want to say I held the old soldier’s hand as he said this, but I might be fabricating that memory. Or just as likely, we all gave him a sincere handshake in turn. I’m confident we lingered an extra moment, taking in his emotional gratitude.
I confess that after caroling at the VA, the remainder of that Christmas was devoted to our own care and convenience. The Bishop and his family fed us missionaries a great lunch. Then we called home to our families. And that evening the four of us had Christmas dinner together--a good brotherly cap to the holiday.
Though I’m no longer a churchgoer--and the reasons don’t matter for this blog post--that Christmas morning remains a cherished and haunting memory for me. I don’t have any grand point to make. It just occurred to me that I never wrote about that day. Though memory is imperfect, and often revisionist, it must have been a great Christmas. I believe so because I miss it.