By Joseph Degi, Copperas Cove, Texas, in Guideposts magazine, December 1988.
None of us sailors in the 119th Construction Battalion were in the mood for Christmas. No wonder! Two hundred of us had been stuck for months right in the steamy middle of the tropical jungle, installing fuel tanks that were supposed to figure, somehow, in the last stages of this war with the Japanese. It was so hot we pitched our tents on platforms and slept in hammocks to catch any passing breath of air.
The lonesome, muggy, homesick days were far removed from the traditional Christmases we remembered. We didn’t even have a chaplain on hand to help us celebrate. In fact, the only regular visitors we saw were jungle tribesmen who haunted the fringes of our camp. Dressed only in loincloths, the small bronze-skinned men would suddenly materialize in the undergrowth, staring at us from the shadows of the New Guinea rain forest, vanishing as noiselessly as they appeared. Short and stocky, with flat faces and kinky hair, they were said to have been ferocious warriors before the coming of the missionaries. Even now, the sight of them made us uneasy.
Certainly that was our reaction on that unforgettable Christmas Eve of 1944.
Shortly before dusk that day, they were there again, peering from the forest edge. We were standing around the mess tent in our fatigues, not doing much, not saying much, just hanging around, sweating and brushing away the insects, trying hard not to think about what day this was. Suddenly from all around the clearing they began to advance, scores of scowling, nearly naked tribesmen. Never before had they ventured beyond the cover of the Jungle, and instinctively we Seabees moved closer together. There was nothing to fear from these solemn-faced unarmed men, but we couldn’t talk to them and we didn’t know what they wanted.
The natives began to circle us. Then they stopped and stood still. The forest itself became very, very quiet, as if even the jungle was on alert. Then, incredibly, the little men began to sing. The words were strange and harsh-sounding in their native tongue, but the tune was unmistakably… “O little town of Bethlehem, how still we see thee lie…”
Blinking back the sudden moisture in my eyes, I mentally supplied the familiar English lyrics. When the former warriors finished, they launched into more songs in their deep guttural voices. For half an hour these men sang us the songs of home, carols they must have learned from some unknown missionary in the brush.
That night after our guests slipped back into the rain forest, I lay in my hammock, sweating, uncomfortable as ever, but no longer quite so melancholy. Through their music and through their caring, these strangest of strangers had made us feel the familiarity and warmth of home.
Psalm 68:32 — Sing to God, you kingdoms of the earth, sing praise to the Lord.
Isaiah 66:18-19 — I… am about to come and gather the people of all nations and languages, and they will come and see my glory. I will set a sign among them, and I will send some of those who survive to the nations, …and to the distant islands that have not heard of my fame or seen my glory. They will proclaim my glory among the nations.
Luke 2:10-14 — The angel said unto them, “Fear not: for, behold, I bring you good tidings of great joy, which shall be to all people. For unto you is born this day in the city of David a Savior, which is Christ the Lord. And this shall be a sign unto you; Ye shall find the babe wrapped in swaddling clothes, lying in a manger.” And suddenly there was with the angel a multitude of the heavenly host praising God, and saying, “Glory to God in the highest, and on earth peace, good will toward men.”
O little town of Bethlehem,
how still we see thee lie;
above thy deep and dreamless sleep
the silent stars go by.
Yet in thy dark streets shineth
the everlasting light;
the hopes and fears of all the years
are met in thee tonight…
O holy Child of Bethlehem,
descend to us, we pray;
cast out our sin, and enter in,
be born in us today.
We hear the Christmas angels
the great glad tidings tell;
o come to us, abide with us,
our Lord Emmanuel!
–Phillips Brooks (1835-1893)