THE VIETNAM TREE
This article was published in the Green Bay Press Gazette on December 24, 1986 It was written by Rich Matuszak and won first place in the Press-Gazette’s “Oh Christmas Tree” contest. It is a tale of a special young man’s first Christmas away from home, fighting a war in Southeast Asia.
The Vietnam Tree
It was 1969; I was 19 and serving with the United States Army, 1st Infantry Division in the Republic of South Vietnam. I entered the Army in February of that year and was sent to Southeast Asia in July.
This was my first Christmas away from home. Being the youngest child in a family of 13, the holiday at our home was filled with family gathering and celebrations. We always were and still are a close-knit family and Christmas was a time when our love and affection for each other seemed to peak.
Our Christmas trees were always large and full. I remember one having a trunk so large it didn’t even fit in our stand; we had to put it in a cement block. The ritual of bringing it into the house was usually accompanied with cries of protest as to how much of the top should be cut off or how bottom branches could be removed without destroying its shape. It always seemed our ceiling was 2 or 3 feet too low.
This Christmas was different though. I was half way around the world; there was no familiar chill in the air or snow on the ground. It was hot and dusty, and I was lonely and homesick.
My mother wrote every week to tell me about what was happening at home. I remember it was sometime in October when in one of her letters she said had mailed me a package that contained my Christmas gift. She mailed it early because she wanted to be sure I would receive it by Christmas.
As the weeks passed and the holidays neared, I began to look more and more expectantly for my package and what was inside. At each day’s mail call I would wait in anguish for my name to be called. Letters and packages from other family members came, but the one from my parents didn’t arrive.
As Christmas drew closer my Mother’s letters began to express more and more concern and anxiety about the fate of
their gift. Knowing my mother, I knew there were many prayers being said during that time and I felt bad for her
because I knew it meant a lot to her that I receive their gift by Christmas.
In my last letter to my parents before Christmas, I had to tell them that their gift for me had not arrived, but that knowing they loved me was the best gift in the world anyway.
Christmas Eve came and still no package. I was sure now that my gift from home had been lost and I concentrated instead on making the best of this extraordinary Christmas.
The next morning the chaplain arrived to say Mass. Although everyone’s thoughts were of home and family, the familiar words of the nativity story brought a sense of comfort.
Shorty after services ended, mail call was announced and my name was called… the package from home had arrived! I could hardly believe it. After all those weeks waiting and finally thinking it was lost for good, here it was on Christmas Day! I took it and sat down and for a while, I just held it and stared at it. I remember thinking that it seemed almost like a miracle that it was here.
I wanted to call home and tell Mom and Dad that the package they wanted me to receive by Christmas was here, but I couldn’t. I felt bad that they would spend this day not knowing how happy I was.
When I started to open the package I sort of expected it to be filled with candy and cookies and things like that. But, when I looked inside I found a beautiful little Christmas tree with little glass bulbs and popcorn balls to trim it with. I took the tree out and started to decorate it, carefully placing each ornament in the proper place as we always did at home.
Below it I placed a crèche sent to me by my sister, and around that I stood all the Christmas card greetings I had received. Then I spent a long time looking at it and thinking about the Christmases of my childhood and wondering about those yet to come.
That little tree with the crèche and greeting cards below it symbolized home for me that year and all the love and comfort that was waiting for me when I returned.
Christmas has come and gone 36 times in my life and each Christmas tree I’ve known has been special in some way. But the one that surpasses all the rest is the one that that least resembles them. That small artificial tree was as real and beautiful to me as any of the others could ever be. Because through it, my parents gave me the very gifts the world received that first Christmas many years ago - hope, joy, peace. and above all, love.