It’s Christmas in the European Theatre of Operations, 1944—75 years ago; but what with letters taking two to six weeks to cross the Atlantic, and packages completely unpredictable, family members on each side of the ocean start thinking about Christmas in September. In more optimistic days, they thought they would surely be back together for the holidays; but by September, though the news has been hopeful, they know it’s not going to happen.
For Helen, this is her second Christmas away. She writes home that she doesn’t want anything.
August 30, 1944
Dearest Mom and Pop —
It must be nearly time to think about Christmas packages. You know, I don’t particularly care if you send anything or not. There isn’t anything I need or want except more film (size 127). We might be home soon after Christmas and even if we aren’t the holiday doesn’t mean anything away from home. So as far as I’m concerned you can skip it.
I’m kind of feeling the same way. It’s a challenging time of year for pretty much everyone I’m close to. Our country is in crisis. Three of my friends have lost loved ones in the past three weeks. How do we go on after our people have gone, whether through death or divorce or distance? How do we define home; and how do we define Christmas without it?
Though I didn’t appreciate it then, 30 and more years ago, it was Christmas in my former husband’s tiny home town in the Midwest that was most like what I imagine to be idyllic Christmas. I was an outsider, then, watching their Christmas as through the Cratchit’s window pane, but now I see it clearly.
They had extended family, in a way mine did not. While my family was scattered across the country, his grandmothers and great-uncle, the aunts and uncles, the cousins all still lived in the area. And they circled the tree at Christmas. They had traditions—brought from Sweden—in a way my family did not so much. My father’s family was German, and undoubtedly they celebrated the “old country” ways when he was small, but the traditions were not brought to my own childhood; and I have not carried traditions with me either.
And now this family, my blood family, separated by war in 1944, and then by choice when the war finally ended, are yearning for what has always been, and will never be again—though they can’t foretell that. Once again, I am looking through the window these letters offer, and seeing the longing that seems to be part and parcel of the season, whatever the decade.
Helen wanted to just skip Christmas, then the 36th General Hospital moves from Italy to France, and mail stops. As weeks of loneliness drag by with almost no contact with home, she comes to her senses, realizing that if others receive packages and she has none, she will be very sad. She sends a list of things she would like, primarily food for evening snacks, army food being “so dreary.” Panicking, perhaps, at her impulsive ditching of Christmas at the end of August, she repeats and adds to the list over the next few letters, just in case one doesn’t reach home. As if they wouldn’t send her packages just because she told them not to.
pickles (Mom made)
an olive drab zipper to alter men’s uniform trousers to better fit me
wool or part wool underclothes
toffee or other chewy candy
Nabisco wafers and fancy crackers
two pairs of cotton hose
popcorn, preferably white
Nestles chocolate mix
tuna fish or sardines
a map of Europe
A few days before Christmas, her packages having arrived and sitting on a shelf waiting, she writes:
It hardly seems possible that Xmas is so near at hand, but it must be true for we have trees decorated on all the wards. The decorations are handmade of paper, string, etc. by patients and personnel and some really clever things were made. Carols will be sung on all wards by the glee club. Four doctors are acting as Santas to distribute Red Cross gifts to all patients. Needless to say, as is the American custom, all patients will be treated alike, be they French, Italian or German. And we have them all!
Joe, aka Walt, Helen’s brother-in-law, writes to his wife’s parents, whom he has embraced as his own:
Dear Mom and Pop:
This being the day after Christmas, everyone is full of pep and raring to go at getting this war finished so we can all be home to celebrate the next one together. I was delighted to get your Christmas letter and thrilled with the package. Got so much candy that if we can get off the post, plan to take a package or two to some French kids New Year’s eve. (That’s when they exchange their presents over here, and candy is scarce for them.)
George and Joe have joined Helen in France. George is north, Helen is south, Joe is in between. It takes them some time to figure out where each other is—thanks to censored letters and slow mail—and longer still to manage to get together, what with duty hours and travel-hampering weather. In early December, Joe cancels a rendezvous in Paris with George with no notice, leaving a message for him at the Red Cross, and grabbing a chance to see Helen. George manages the same two days later, but misses Joe by a few hours. They hope to all be together on Christmas, but it’s not to be.
George writes home:
None of us got together. Joe was up [to my place] the week before Christmas and we decided that it was going to be well nigh impossible to get where Helen is. Then came the German offensive and travel was curtailed – to put it mildly. It was too bad, for I know that Helen was greatly disappointed and so was I. It would have been something to write home about and something to remember for a lifetime.
I saved your Christmas package until Christmas Eve. We all had a little party – that is, everyone in the detachment. I opened my packages and the other officers did the same and we passed out all the good things in them. Your Christmas cookies were far and away the best we ever had. Can’t think of anything off hand that makes Christmas seem more like Christmas, even 4000 miles away.
Melvyn, the baby at 19 years, has moved again. He’s now in radar school at Harvard, and glad to be gone from Mississippi. All he wants for Christmas is snow. Early in December, he writes home his uncertain travel plans. Travel was always long, with air travel just coming into being, but in 1944 it is particularly challenging, and leave time is brief. And if he is late returning he risks being AWOL.
I am going to try to get out of here on the 3:20 PM train Friday which is supposed to get into Ann Arbor 7:20 Saturday morning. If I miss that one I will get in to Detroit at 1:00. If I miss the connection in Buffalo I will try to fly again. This time I am going to leave enough money—I hope—to be able to telegraph at least where I’ll come in. I will have to leave, however, sometime on Christmas day—probably at 5 PM from Detroit or make a connection in Toledo earlier. Anyway I’ll be home Sunday and may have to leave Christmas morning [Monday]. It all depends just how generous [the Captain] wants to be.
After his return to Harvard, he writes to Mom: If you have had any doubts whether I was glad I came home or not put them out of your head for I know now I would have even if I had only a few hours. That’s true.
Finally George writes to his wife. Stellajoe has moved from Michigan, where she’s been living with his parents, to Florida to be with hers; but it’s been weeks with no mail and he still doesn’t know if she moved. Finally, just before Christmas, he gets two packages, and an address for her. He writes a letter she probably won’t get until mid-January.
Don’t have much of the Christmas spirit this year, it seems. Our mess hall has been very attractively decorated with a tree and red and green ribbons. But other than that, not much has been done. I got another Christmas package from you yesterday, which I plan to open tomorrow. First class mail is still very much delayed.
The Colonel, C.O. of the field, had a Christmas party for the officers last night. They brought in a choir of 8 or 10 enlisted men who were organized by special service. They sang some Christmas carols, and very beautifully, too. I’d love to be home tonight to sit in front of a fireplace and listen to Christmas music with my wife.
This abnormal life – such as being away on Christmas – sometimes gets me down. And it’s then that I thank God that I have the love of my wife and of my family. I suppose it’s sort of like a religion. I feel so sorry for those who can’t have memories and visions of a future to live on. War is a terrible thing.
The war reached a peak of fury right on Christmas. Not a pleasant Christmas for those doing the fighting. C’est la goddamn guerre!
I love you wherever you are and wherever I am!
Love to all, Helen
Your son, by law and affection, Joe
So long, Melvyn
All my love, George
This is a hard Christmas in our beloved country, and around the world, just as it was in 1944. May you find hope and joy and home where you can. Merry Christmas, Gretchen