They’re coming. They’re coming home from every point on the compass: Kabul, Berlin, Korea. They’re coming from Los Angeles, Chicago, El Paso, Eagle Pass and Tampico.

They’re coming here, not just because it’s home; to many, it’s not. It’s just that this is the best place in the world to spend Christmas, maybe the only place.

Yes, it’s snowing in North Dakota and Colorado, there will be wreaths on the doors in Montana and Kansas, lights in the frosted windows in Illinois. But Christmas in New England is iconic, it’s mystical, magical. It’s etched in glass and framed in the hearts of most Americans.

Just look at all the traditional Christmas cards. There they are, all bundled up in fur robes and stuffed into 19th-century sleighs. The horses all festooned with bells and red leather straps, are puffing smoke into the purple twilight. Artists from Childe Hassam to Grandma Moses saw Christmas as a special New England thing.

See the Christmas commercials? That’s not Laredo or San Juan Capistrano. That’s New England.

It’s Massachusetts, Vermont, New Hampshire, Rhode Island, Connecticut and Maine. Yes, Maine. So there it is. They’re coming home, sons and daughters, nieces and nephews, brothers and sisters from all spots on the map.

They’re leaving the movie studios in Hollywood, the art galleries and Wall Street offices in Manhattan and joyfully, battlefields afar. To those uniformed pilgrims, coming home is a musical score. It is the crystallization of fading dreams into sparkling tinseled reality.

Not for all. Sadly, tragically, not for all. On Christmas week in 1941, only a pocket full of days from Dec. 7, families all over America waited in snowy silence for the phone to ring, for a letter to arrive, and in cold horror, a telegram to be delivered, or a military car to pull up at the curb.

On Dec. 12, my mother, who was wrapping packages, froze in time and space as a Navy car stopped in front of the house. An officer, Captain Schwartz, a retired shipmate of my father, who had died only nine months earlier, came to the door. My mother handed me a ribbon and put one hand to her heart.

Captain Schwartz tapped on the window and smiled. That smile melted the ice and warmed the room. He had word that my brother Matt, who had survived the attack at Pearl, was safe and at sea. For many, just as today, the word didn’t come with a smile.

Then, as today, too many didn’t get off the planes and trains, pulling their sea bags and duffels behind them. Then as now, they arrived in flag draped boxes stowed in the cold luggage chambers of trains and aircraft.

On too many Christmases, far too many fathers lowered their eyes and went into the yard to cry, as mothers put one hand to their hearts, and muffled that silent primal scream that only a mother can hear.

It’s here now. After weeks of scraping together money for gifts, of wrapping and cooking, praying and waiting for trains and planes and busses to arrive, it’s here.

They’re coming. They’ll stand by the tree and sit at the tables in uniforms and jeans, tweeds and wool. They’ll laugh with us and remember all the times before. The good times won’t seem as good as this one, the bad, not as bad as they thought.

But as we turn the tree lights on tonight and lift a glass, let’s take a moment to remember those not coming, those whose faces we enshrine in our hearts. As we grow older, that list grows longer. It’s part of the game of life.

The great Irish writer James Joyce helps me end it best: “It had begun to snow again. He watched sleepily the flakes, silver and dark, falling obliquely against the lamplight. His soul swooned slowly as he heard the snow falling faintly through the universe and faintly falling, like the descent of their last end, upon all the living and the dead.”

Remember them. Merry Christmas.

J.P. Devine is a Waterville writer.

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