Christmas during Wartime

Article excerpt

Celebrating Christmas amidst America's wars has been a major facet of wartime life since the Civil War. Here is a brief review of its origins in conflict and a sampling of personal experiences on Dec. 25 taken from a variety of battlefields.

"Today, it is impossible to imagine the date as a purely private, voluntary event," Stephen Nissenbaum wrote in The Battle for Christmas. "Indeed, Christmas has become the most important single civic celebration in the American calendar year."

No doubt about it. The latest surveys indicate that 96% of Americans celebrate this endearing holiday. At war once again, the nation has sent a small number of its sons and daughters overseas to fight. But it has not always been that way. In the past, the home front also was fully mobilized.

At least as early as the Mexican War (1846-48), American soldiers were accustomed to Christmas traditions. During that decade, Christmas cards and trees were in fashion. But it was the Civil War that genuinely cemented the ties between the holiday and those on the battlefield.

Civil War Christmas Crucible

"For a nation torn by civil war, Christmas in the 1860s was observed with conflicting emotions," Kevin Rawlings wrote in We Were Marching on Christmas Day: A History and Chronicle of Christmas During the Civil War. "Nineteenth-century Americans embraced Christmas with all the Victorian trappings that had moved the holiday from the private and religious realm to a public celebration.

"Christmas cards were in vogue, carol singing was common in public venues, and greenery festooned communities North and South. Christmas trees stood in places of honor in many homes, and a mirthful poem about the jolly old elf who delivered toys to well-behaved children captivated Americans on both sides of the Mason-Dixon Line."

By Christmas 1862, Harper's Weekly-the most prestigious magazine of the era-illustrator Thomas Nast had allied Santa Claus with the Union Army. Nast even created the North Pole as Santa's toy workshop to identify him with the North. Abraham Lincoln called Santa "the best recruiting sergeant the North ever had."

In her book, Merry Christmas! Celebrating America's Greatest Holiday, Karal Ann Marling asserts: "In some respects, the War Between the States was the crucible in which Christmas was forged. Nast's Santa assumed his definitive form as a sort of go-between, carrying news and presents home to Yankee troops on the front lines."

In fact, between 1861 and 1865, 13 states took action to make Christmas a legal holiday. Meanwhile, on the battlefield, soldiers erected small evergreen trees strung with hardtack and pork. Christmas dinner consisted of hardtack, crackers, rice, beans and, if lucky, a tiny piece of beef.

In 1861, 2nd Lt. Robert Gould of the 2nd Massachusetts Regiment prophetically wrote in a letter to home: "It is Christmas morning and I hope a happy and merry one for you all, though it looks so sorry for our poor country, one can hardly be in merry humor." The next four years bore out this future hero's prediction.

20th Century Wars Add New Experiences

Doughboys experienced only one Christmas overseas during WWI. In December 1917, Lt. Oliver Ames, Jr., of the 165th Inf. Regt., 42nd Div., wrote from France: "No man will ever become hardened to spending Christmas Eve in a cold barn with nothing but straw to sleep on and no lights to see by and thousands of miles from home."

WWII saw GIs in Europe and the Pacific for four yuletides. During the Battle of the Bulge, Elmer Bishard of the 29th Infantry Division witnessed a most surprising gesture from the enemy.

"We spent Christmas Eve and Christmas Day 1944 sitting on the bank of the Ruhr River, and turkey sandwiches were brought to us," he remembered. "To our surprise, as we began eating, the Germans across the river began singing 'Jingle Bells' to us."

War in Cold War-era Communist Asia offered few such pleasantries. …