By Joel L.A. Peterson

It has been 15 Christmases since my mother passed, but I remember all the lessons she taught me - especially one on the meaning of Christmas.

It was Christmas Eve, 1987. I was a young naval officer, and I had been at sea nearly 100 days straight, escorting U.S.-flagged tankers through the Persian Gulf. On this particular Christmas, my ship, the aircraft carrier USS Midway, was just outside the Strait of Hormuz, off the coast of Iran.

On that Dec. 24, Bob Hope flew aboard, with singers and actors and beauty contest winners.

Waiting for the show, I thought of previous Christmases. It was my mother's favorite holiday, and she always pulled out all the stops. Her Hummel figurines were paraded and displayed, depicting nativity scenes and Christmas characters, like Santa and Rudolph. I could remember so many of my mother's perfectly orchestrated Christmases, when it was white and cold on the outside but warm and glowing in our home. As I waited for Hope's show to start, I felt so distant from the wonder of the season seen through the eyes that I had back then.

Hope turned out to be much better than I had expected. He was a very funny man who made everyone laugh at his own worst weaknesses and gaffes. But when the laughs were done, the reality of Christmas far away from any in my past hit me - and crushed my soul.

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Charlie Brown's tree

After the show, I went to my bunk room and opened the presents that Mom had sent, including a small, plastic Christmas tree. It was sad in a cute sort of way, resembling that little tree in the Charlie Brown Christmas special. She had also sent some of my old decorations, like the tiny clothespin soldiers I had made in first grade. I hung those decorations on my Charlie Brown tree and didn't care if anyone might laugh at it.

I sat alone in the glare of the blinking lights of the pathetic tree, opening brightly wrapped packages my mother had sent to represent the love and warmth of family. And in the flashing hues, I was suddenly swept with a loneliness so absolute, so profound and pure. A desperate longing gripped my soul and squeezed and squeezed. Amid the torn wrappings, so cheery in their colors and brightness, I cried.

I cried for the loss of those long-ago Christmases full of warmth and childhood. I cried for that time long ago when I had sat safe between my parents at church on Christmas Eve and had sung the ancient songs of harking herald angels and mangers that were far and away. I cried for a world that needed men like me, in uniform, in harm's way, flung across the globe, separated and gone away. At that moment, I missed my mother and my family as I never had before.

I believed in what I was doing. I believed in the duty I had as a U.S. Navy officer. I firmly believed that societies grow and flourish only so long as there are those who are willing to sacrifice on their behalf. My mother had taught me this.

But theories and duty and abstract beliefs can be pretty inconsequential when a man is exposed to the icy winds of his little-boy loneliness. And in the winking lights of my plastic Charlie Brown tree, all blurred with my tears, I wondered if I wasn't on the wrong path. I couldn't help thinking that, when it came down to it, there really wasn't a whole lot else that exemplified the best of life as much as Christmas spent with those you love.

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Bob Hope's gift

But then, I also thought about how someone as famous as Bob Hope - who was such an American icon - had traveled so far to give a show to me and my shipmates. How he and so many had given up their families at Christmas to come such a long way to reach out to men like me. Just to let us know that we weren't alone - not really - that we were all part of a society of shared hopes, shared dreams, and shared striving.

Suddenly, I felt that I understood more clearly than ever the beliefs I'd been taught by my mother regarding Christ's birth and sacrifice: God had taken on the frailty and limited form of humanness that he might share in human joys and pains and loneliness and deaths.

I suddenly grasped with new insight what my mother had always said: It is the wonder, hope, and belief in the love of a God who would willingly share in the crushing mortality and limitations of his fleeting creations that is at the heart of Christmas.

My mother's teachings found their mark that day. I came to understand as never before what Christmas was for her.

The meaning was not in the glitter and props and material objects offered and received. It was not in empty rituals. Christmas, for my mother - and now for me - would always be in the love of family, in the hearts of loved ones. It would always be in drawing together against the world's cold to share the warmth that only we can give to each other. And together we would dare hope for a time when the world won't be quite so mean, quite so lonely, or quite so cold.

In 1987, in the Gulf of Oman, in the north Arabian Sea, my mother and Bob Hope helped me understand the true meaning of Christmas. I have never lost this lesson. I hope I never will.

Joel L.A. Peterson is the founder and CEO of Student Planning Services and the author of "Dreams of My Mothers," which is scheduled for release in March. He can be reached via www.dreamsofmymothers.com.