It was the winter of 1950.
That was the last Christmas my family enjoyed in southern Indiana, before we moved to the sunny South. And, being the tender age of 6, it was the very first Christmas that I can recall.
My mother's father, Grandfather Binford, was the founder of what was then called the Binford Brotherhood. The brotherhood was a church-related men's organization that met regularly and performed many fantastic philanthropic deeds in and around the city of New Albany, Indiana.
And, at Christmas time the brotherhood held a magnificent dinner for all its members and their families. They transformed the city golf club into an enchanting Christmas wonderland.
It looked to me as if we had landed smack-dab in Santa's North Pole banquet hall.
We, the kids and grandkids of the brotherhood members, were invited and we were seated at our very own special dinner table. But we were not the honored guests.
At the table of honor sat New Albany's military veterans; our men and women who had served our country in the two world wars. Many had fought in Europe and some in the Pacific. And there was even one, very young, Marine. He was home on leave and was soon to be shipped overseas to fight in the Korean conflict.
These vets were the honored guest of The Binford Brotherhood; and we kids sat in awe of their collective majesty.
My father sat at the head table. I was very proud of him and all the other veterans who had gone in harm's way and had successfully defeated our country's sworn enemies. Seated dead center at the head table was a veteran of World War I. He had served with MacArthur's storied Rainbow Division during the Muse Argon Campaign.
Very slowly, the old veteran rose to his feet. He was dressed in a somewhat tattered brown uniform and sported a battered campaign hat. He rendered a precise military salute, and then he began to speak.
I will paraphrase his words, as I recall them, here:
When I was a young boy, we held the idea of Christmas within our hearts. We children never forgot the meaning of the word, Christmas! We all were aware that the Christmas gifts we received simply represented the gifts that were offered to a small baby lying quietly in the Bethlehem manger. We children knew that the holiday we called Christmas was not about gifts, it was about the birth of our savior and, the origin of our blessed religion. A religion, I might add, that has changed the world mightily.
I have seen war, my friends, and I can tell you that my fellow soldiers, both, past and present, have willingly offered up their lives for you, and your children, and your children's children. Friends, we did this in order that these children might safely live their lives with honor, dignity and in freedom.
Last week at Sunday school, one young whippersnapper stated that, unlike the old Bible days, there were no miracles to be seen. And I knew that I had to challenge that erroneous notion.
In France, and on Christmas Eve morn' in 1917, the battalion was set to go over the top. At that time our company had seen very little action. Everyone, even with a scrap of sense, was as scared as they had ever been in their life. Then just as our captain was about to blow his whistle to sound the charge, our company phone rang. The news was grand, and it rippled through the trenches from one thankful doughboy to another. For the charge had been called off.
The cheers went up all down the line and then we saw her in the mist. In that early morning haze, rising through the eastern sky, we beheld the face of the Virgin Mary rising up over that dreadful battlefield. Now some of you may not believe me, but I tell you; that day she was smiling down upon us. And I can tell you that any of us who'd not been saved, were speedily converted that misty dawn. Through the haze of that blessed sunrise she had delivered us all from a terrible fate.
Folks, I can assure you, miracles do happen; and they happen all the time. It's just that we don't seem to take occasion to notice them anymore.
Then he gathered himself up, standing at rigid attention and he simply said: "Now my friends please join me in prayer." We all bowed our little heads and his prayer, and the genuine meaning of Christmas, shot through us like a bolt of red-hot light.
I don't remember what gift I received from Santa that night, but I do remember what happened next. My Grandfather Binford rose and spoke.
"Now children, you have a better understanding of the meaning of Christmas. At Christmas time we Christians celebrate the birth of our Lord and Savior. Now turn your serving dishes over and see the gift the Binford Brotherhood has provided for each of you. Enjoy your gift, but pray do not ever forget the true meaning of Christmas.''
We children scrambled to clear the reams of gift wrappings and get to the polished dish below. And there, lo and behold, each child discovered a golden coin. For under each dish was found a shiny new $10 gold piece.
I still have mine, but that night, each of the children present at the Binford Brotherhood banquet was thunderstruck with the joy, but more importantly, we then truly understood the profound meaning of the celebration we call Christmas!
Bob Loring lives near San Antonio and is head of Toys for Tots of East Pasco.