Dennis Rogers says it's giving - not gifts - that makes a Christmas special

Contributing columnistDecember 9, 2013 

  • Holiday Giving Guide

    The News & Observer’s Holiday Giving Guide is a searchable database of area charities and their most pressing needs. If you have time, money, clothing, food, furniture or other items to donate, use the database to find an organization that can put it to good use. Find it at

(Editor’s note: Former N&O columnist Dennis Rogers’ holiday columns were always reader favorites. Now back in his beloved North Carolina, Dennis offers a new column for this Christmas season.)

The memories grow stronger as the days grow shorter.

Maybe it’s because the early darkness in December graces us with more precious time to savor the fading years that have come and gone. Or maybe it’s the heart that pulls us toward the past when we contemplate the uncertainties the new year will bring. Or, heck, maybe it’s just Christmas.

Crazy, rushed, commercialized, politicized, bright, expensive, wearying, jingly, silly old Christmas, the holiday we love and complain about the most. Most Christmas seasons come and go in an empty blur. Too much, too fast and there it goes for another year.

But there was that one special Christmas, wasn’t there? The one you remember most when distant voices sing a faint carol that cuts through the noisy chaos of the mall and touches only you. That Christmas you’ve held onto through all the years. That Christmas that seems to matter more than the others. The one you think about at night when the house grows quiet and the welcome ghost of Dickens’ Christmas past comes calling for you.

That Christmas.

We all have one, and I’ll make you a friendly holiday wager: you remember that special Christmas not for the gifts you received but the ones you gave.

Those are the best ones. Trinkets, prized under the tree, grow old like the people who once treasured them. But Christmas memories, now that’s the ticket. Because when you give a memory, you get one to keep for yourself. What a deal!

My special Christmas

It snowed on Christmas Eve that year. There was nothing romantic, heartwarming or nostalgic about the snow because it seemed to snow every day that cold winter in Korea 48 years ago.

I was working. I’d volunteered to stand duty at our compound near Paju-ri up near the DMZ that night because I didn’t want to sit in my hooch and miss my wife and kids back in Wilson.

It was the night of our Christmas party for the kids from the nearby orphanage. I was happy to miss it because I didn’t think I could bear to be around little kids when my daughters were 10,000 miles away. But I wandered down to our bar where my buddies were hosting the kids’ party instead of drinking like we usually did.

I stood at the window with a .45 pistol on my hip, a carbine on my shoulder and snow falling on my face and watched our gruff old first sergeant in a ratty Santa suit handing out gifts to the kids. Their smiles lit the dark place in my heart like no other Christmas ever has. I treasure that memory above all store-bought gifts. I hope those kids – now grandparents – have grown old remembering that snowy night when homesick soldiers from a half a world away chipped in what little money they had to bring Christmas to them in that sad place.

This can be the year of your greatest Christmas memory. This can be the year you bring light to the heart of a lonely child who fears he or she has been forgotten. You can strengthen the resolve and budgets of people who labor to save abandoned animals or protect the environment that is home to us all.

You can feed the hungry and shelter the homeless on nights that are so long and so cold. There are those who are sick in body and soul who need to know you’re there for them. Whether they are young victims of unspeakable abuse or old people nearing the end of their lives, they shouldn’t be alone.

Not at Christmas. Not when we can do something about it.

How can you help?

So go ahead, send a check, pick a name from a tree or just walk in the door and say, “How can I help?”

The N&O’s Holiday Giving Guide – – has links to dozens of agencies that need your help to help others. Money is always welcome, but your time and your heart are important, too. Money can’t hold the hand of a frightened child or a lonely shut-in for whom the brightest moment of their day is the friendly face who brings them lunch. Money can pay for medicine, but it cannot give a protective hug to a woman who has been raped.

For many years I worked with an angel named Jane Richardson to collect Christmas gifts for foster kids in Wake County. We never added up the value of donated gifts through the years because the amount wasn’t important. What was important was there were 20 or 30 or 50 kids riding fine new bikes or wearing warm coats or playing with precious toys each year who didn’t have them until you opened your heart. You made a difference year after year, and it felt good, didn’t it?

You probably won’t ever meet the people you help at Christmas. That’s fine because you’ll know they’re there. And they’ll know that in this busy city at this busy time of year, there was someone who gave a damn about them.

It’s good to visit again with you, my friends. Merry Christmas.

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