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I first learned it 30 years ago on a muggy, hot Dec. 26 when I rappelled from a helicopter in a Santa suit into a little village near Phouc Vinh, Vietnam. We were in sore need of a respite from the unremitting terror of war, and a Santa Claus stunt on the "Feast of Stephen" was the vehicle we chose.

There is, of course, little in the Vietnamese culture that allows for Santa Claus and nothing that speaks to the feast of Christmas. So when the village kids saw a white-bearded, red-clad figure with a big bag over his shoulder, they were frightened and wouldn't come near me.

When I handed out the first candy bar, though, they flocked around me with the universal love of children for caring and for gifts.

In that unlikeliest of places, I saw the unfettered joy of children who knew nothing of Christmas or Santa Claus but knew they were being cared for with kindness. I learned the immutable lesson of love reflected in the sparkle of a child's eye.

It had been a long time since I'd seen that sparkle, but I had the great joy of seeing it again a few weeks ago. I took my granddaughter through Delaware Park for a look at the "Lights in the Park" display.

That little girl's eyes gleamed with both the special joy of Christmas and the wonderment of reindeer leaping over the car, footballs kicked over goal posts and Santa Claus being pulled by reindeer.

After her initial awe at the sight, her 2-year-old vocabulary was strained to the breaking point as she tried to tell us of the incredible sights she had seen. On her second trip around ring road, she voiced a familiarity with the characters she saw the first time: "Claus," "angels" and "deers" -- or some 2-year-old derivations of those words.

The overhead lights caught in her eyes and reflected back to us the happiness and the amazement she captured. And she gave me a pleasant trip back to that long-ago Christmas when it was the arms of happy children that wrapped around me, instead of the "wait-a-minute" vines that usually entangled me in the combat zone.

The only time Devyn was unhappy was when we exited the park. She kept asking for a return to see the "hights" (another Devyn word) even as bedtime beckoned back home.

Christmas is best seen through the prism of a child's eyes. The holiday lost some of its luster for me when my vision became clouded by grown-up things and practical concerns. It would seem that a lot of people are suffering from the same malady.

In a city striving to make itself a destination, one might think that such a holiday display and the audience it attracts would be a good thing.

One might even think accolades and congratulations are in order for the Parks Department and the display sponsors. But one might be wrong.

A lot of presumably well-intentioned people who deem themselves sole arbiters of park policy are making a lot of negative comments about the "Lights in the Park" display -- comments that would make Scrooge blush and kids confused.

Perhaps those well-intentioned people need a spin around the park in a car with a 2-year-old. Devyn and I would be happy to oblige them.

STEPHEN T. BANKO III is a community builder with the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development.
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