.- It wasn't much, just a little Christmas tree with colorful lights and a few carefully wrapped presents.
But it was all Dick Jones, 66, needed to feel an instant connection to the love and comfort of home. Sitting on his bunk aboard the U.S.S. Jamestown off the coast of Vietnam in 1967, the young seaman took his time opening the gifts to reveal a writing tablet, pens and other presents sent by his fiancÃ©, Judie.
"It melted my heart," Dick said. "I remember sitting there with these little wrapped packages and the delight I had with each one of them."
The 12-inch tree stood as a reminder to Jones that love surrounded him just as surely as the sulfur smell of war and steamy Vietnamese jungle he confronted daily.
It also represented the hope that is renewed each year as people celebrate Jesus' birth.
Judie, 65, said she remembers how she felt when she bought the Christmas tree.
"I was so excited. I wanted him to feel that sense of home and know we were together in heart and spirit."
Today, the little tree with its twinkling lights sits on an end table in their front room, reminding the couple, members of Holy Cross Parish in Omaha, of the preciousness of every Christmas together.
For Jan Placke, 63, a member of St. Michael Parish in Central City, Neb., the Christmas memories she cherishes include Advent wreaths, attending midnight Mass with her six brothers and sisters in Augusta, Kan., and the excitement of Christmas morning.
Her parents stressed the importance of the season by demonstrating through their faith that Christmas is a celebration of the birth of Christ, Placke said.
Placke said she and her husband, Deacon Don Placke, continue that tradition with their three children, now adults with their own families.
"My husband and I taught our children that Christmas is about Jesus' birth," Jan said.
A few times to stress that point as the children grew up, she bought a birthday cake as part of their holiday celebration.
And the Plackes continue to emphasize the significance of the season through prayer and reflection.
"Christmas is a time for God and family," she said.
Judie Jones said celebrating the Savior's birth runs much deeper than presents and all the commercialization that seems to have overtaken the season for so many people.
"It's trusting God every day to bring the one you love home safely. It's the anticipation of the birth of Jesus and it's wondering what new things you will experience in the coming year through his divine grace."
Over the years, the Joneses have tried to instill a sense of self-sacrifice and service in their seven children and 22 grandchildren by adopting a family for the holiday to buy gifts for, or sending financial support to someone in need.
"We try not to take anything for granted," Dick said. "We are so blessed."
He is reminded of his blessings when he thinks back to the times the ship was docked in the Philippines and he was on duty in the mess hall.
"We had BBQ ribs one night and after the guys had scraped their plates into the metal cans I took them out to the dumpster on the dock. The locals who were lucky enough to work on base came over and started picking through the dumpster looking for ribs to take home to their families. I'll never forget that," he said.
Things like that, the Joneses said, keep them humble, prayerful and grateful, especially during the holidays.
"There are years I don't even put up a big Christmas tree," Judie said. "But I always bring out my little Christmas tree, Advent wreath and Nativity set."
Printed with permission from the Catholic Voice, newspaper for the Archdiocese of Omaha, Neb.