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The Globe and Mail

Canadian troops gather for special Christmas Eve mass in Kandahar

U.S. Navy commander and chaplain Lewis Dolan leads a multi-denominational mass Friday at Kandahar Airfield.

Steve Rennie/Steve Rennie/The Canadian Press

They gathered in a simple wooden chapel in a faraway land to do something quintessentially Canadian: sing Christmas songs.

These being the famed Van Doos from Valcartier, Que., they sang traditional French Christmas carols, such as Peuple fidele and Il est ne le divin enfant.

Maybe for a few minutes they forgot they were so far from home.

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The night before Christmas at Kandahar Airfield in southern Afghanistan was a festive affair, capped by a late-night mass attended by about 100 Canadian troops.

It was a day when soldiers paired desert camouflage fatigues with red Santa hats. The wooden boardwalk was abuzz with last-minute shoppers looking for that perfect gift for colleagues or to send back home - albeit a bit late.

Others packed the Internet cafe to e-mail or call loved ones at home.

Soldiers have been in the Christmas spirit all week. Every corner of the boardwalk was festooned with ornaments and paper signs from various NATO countries. The Canadians hung a sled with a red maple leaf painted on its front. The Americans went with a cardboard mantle and faux fireplace. The British had a Christmas tree.

A gargantuan Christmas tree bedecked in ornaments and lights stood next to the ball-hockey rink at the far corner of the boardwalk. After sundown, the tiny lights strung along wooden beams twinkled like stars.

Down at the Canadian part of the base, troops lined up at Tim Hortons to be served by cashiers sporting Mrs. Claus-inspired pink toques with white trim and pompoms.

Later, as the setting sun set tinged the sky with splashes of red and purple, soldiers from all countries gathered at the boardwalk for a special, multi-denominational mass.

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They sang all the usual Christmas carols and prayed together. A small orchestra provided the soundtrack against a backdrop of fighter jets roaring overhead and the thwap-thwap of helicopter rotor blades.

U.S. navy commander and chaplain Lewis Dolan led the mass. Later, he explained that faith and nationality don't matter when it comes to Christmas in Kandahar.

"We can gather together. We can celebrate Christmas. We know our families are going to be doing it," Cdr. Dolan said.

"So we did it together, just different parts of the world."

Troops can look forward to a special military tradition on Christmas Day: being served turkey, mashed potatoes, stuffing and all the trimmings by their commanders.

And then it's back to work. The constant drone of aircraft flying overhead is a reminder the war doesn't stop for the holidays.

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