"There's a grief that can't be spoken.
There's a pain goes on and on.
Empty chairs at empty tables
Now my friends are dead and gone."
— Marius, from the musical "Les Miserables"
"It's the most wonderful time of the year," Andy Williams reminds us over tinny speakers in crowded shopping malls. It may be wonderful for the majority, but for those whose fathers, mothers, sisters, brothers or children have died in Iraq and Afghanistan, there is a void this Christmas, and Christmases to come, that can never be filled. It is the same in every war.
Memories of Christmases past can only add to the pain, especially for those experiencing their first Christmas without a loved one opening presents and eating their fill at the dinner table.
On Monday, I drove past Arlington National Cemetery near the Pentagon. It is fitting that the building where war is made would be in such close proximity to the graves of those who died fighting them. Veterans cemeteries ought to remind civilians, as well as generals, that war should never be entered into lightly, but rather always as a last resort.
Every Christmas, volunteers place wreaths on each of the headstones in Arlington. The tableau could be a Christmas card, except such a card would express sorrow, not joy.
There is a show on Fox News Channel called "The Cost of Freedom." It's about money. The grave markers at Arlington and at veterans cemeteries around the nation are the true cost of freedom, which has always been paid, not with cash, but with blood.
Freedom is not the natural state of humanity, otherwise more of us would be free. Oppression, discrimination, religious fanaticism, hunger, dictatorship, censorship of the press, denial of women's rights — these seem to be the norm. To be free means to rail against such injustice.
Christians believe Jesus came to set us free from sin. Those who have died in our wars fought and gave their lives that we might have our many freedoms, including the religious freedom to hear and accept or reject his message.
Passing Arlington, I recall a line from one of our wonderful patriotic songs, "America, the Beautiful," which says of our war dead, "O beautiful for heroes proved in liberating strife, who more than self their country loved, and mercy more than life!"
In a narcissistic age this may seem odd, even offensive to those whose favorite nouns are "I" and "me." Perhaps that's why so many of us don't know anyone who has served in the military. It's called military "service," after all. Making money serves self. If we haven't served in the armed forces, it is less likely we would know people who are serving, or have served. I served, albeit not on the battlefield, making my contribution as part of Armed Forces Radio in the 1960s.
As the ads and emails suggest last-minute gift ideas, here's a suggested gift that will last longer in your heart than any purchase you make for yourself or your family: Find someone who has lost a loved one to war and take them a present. It doesn't have to be expensive. Tell them, "I wanted to bring you a gift in recognition of the gift your loved one gave our country." If you don't know anyone, search online for organizations that assist families whose loved ones paid the ultimate price for our country.
If you do that, I suspect this Christmas will be unforgettable for the person on the receiving end of your compassion. It could also be a transforming event in your own life and a Christmas you will never forget.
Cal Thomas is a syndicated columnist. He may be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.