By Norris Burkes Dec 20 2019

It had already been a dark and stormy night — then it was Christmas, 2008.

The flight attendants instructed us to buckle our seatbelts in preparation for departure. The pilot told us to expect a rough 3 ½ hours flight from Sacramento to Chicago. 

But what he said next got my attention.

“If you are continuing with us through to Baltimore, you may be delayed by the weather in Chicago.”

“Great, just great.” I thought. “I really hadn’t been dreaming of a white-out Christmas.”

The only thing keeping my “sit-upon” in that airplane seat were the military orders I was sitting upon. The orders directed me to proceed by commercial plane to Baltimore where I’d board a military chartered DC-10. That plane would take me to Balad, Iraq where I would serve as the senior chaplain at the Air Force Field Hospital.

With the weather worsening, I rubbed my face, wondering if I could volunteer to return to my warm house. My clothing had been slightly damped in the morning rain. The plane was cold, and even among 180 people, I was feeling alone.

One hour earlier, at 5 a.m., I had embraced my wife, Becky, in a tearful departure from the airport tram. It felt like the worst Christmas ever.

For years, she’d watched the news of military deployments, adding, “It feels like the president only sends the military to war at Christmas.” Now she nurtured anecdotal proof of that.


But I was one to follow orders. I did what I was told. 

I set the alarm for “0’Dark-thirty,” drove to the airport, kissed my bride goodbye and I buckled that wretched seatbelt! 

Chaplain Norris was going to war, but he wasn’t exactly a “happy chappy.”

I nestled my forehead into the foggy windowsill and tried to feel Christmas. “What should it feel like?” I wondered.

I suppose yuletide emotions can differ between person and place, but it occurred to me that there may be a reason that I experience the Christmas spirit best between Thanksgiving and New Year’s. 

Every year, Thanksgiving introduces me to Advent. It helps arrest my headlong fall into the commercial frenzy of the holidays. It gives me pause to express gratitude toward people who care for me, who worry about me, and who pray for me.


When Christmas finally arrives, I have an abundance of gratitude in my soul. From this reserve, I choose to shower my family and friends with gifts and meaningful appreciation. But moreover, my gratitude extends to charity toward those who depend on year-end gifts to sustain their budget.

If Thanksgiving is the introduction to Christmas, then New Year’s Day is the benediction for the holidays. This day is all about celebrating a new chance at grace. New Year’s Day teems with opportunities for do-overs in our lives. For that matter, it’s a time to grant grace to others and make amends to those we may have hurt.

The overhead speaker crackled with uncertainty. The pilot began as if he had something to say but uncertain how to say it. “Ladies and gentlemen, I’m afraid…”

He might have been “afraid,” but he still managed to overcome his fears and say it. 

“We aren’t going anywhere today. Weather has canceled this flight.” 

Of course, the pilot had no authority to cancel my orders, so I would have to fly the next day.

But, for the time being, I was feeling Thanksgiving gratitude bound with the do-over spirit of New Year’s Day.

I reached for my cell phone and punched Becky’s number.

And with the certainty of Father Christmas himself, I said, “Turn that sleigh around, Mrs. Claus! Looks like I’ll be home for Christmas.”


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