“A time to love, and a time to hate; a time for war, and a time for peace.”
- Ecclesiastes 3:8 -
During the Civil War a Confederate prisoner received a bottle of old brandy from a friend. On Christmas morning he called several of his fellow prisoners over to his bunk for a Yuletide taste. The bottle, he soon discovered, had been opened, the brandy consumed, and the liquor replaced with tinted water. He stated, “I hope the Yankee who played this practical joke lives to repent it and is shot before the war ends.”
Stealing Christmas brandy is Scrooge-like at best, yet on occasion war and killing during the holiday season have taken a backseat to celebrate “peace on earth, goodwill toward men.”
In 1862, Abraham Lincoln’s son, Tad, was deeply saddened after visiting grievously wounded soldiers in numerous hospitals with his president-father. In 1863, many Union soldiers received gifts “From Tad Lincoln,” mostly clothing and books. In the poorer South, disappointed children were told Santa Claus couldn’t make his annual visit because of the Union blockade. Some children were told poor old Saint Nick had been shot by Yankees. Alabama was the first state to recognize Christmas as an official holiday in 1836. In 1907, Oklahoma became the last state to declare Christmas a legal holiday.
On Christmas Day in 1864, a Union captain led a group of his soldiers to deliver “supplies and food” to destitute Georgians. Their delivery carts were pulled by mules adorned with tree branches tied to their heads to resemble reindeer. However, one Union detachment was commanded by an authentic Grinch: After telling his men not to celebrate Christmas, he punished the soldiers for celebratory gunfire. Turned out the gunfire was for a funeral salute.
In an effort to reunite North and South, President Ulysses S. Grant made Christmas an official federal holiday in 1870. The hero of San Juan Hill and future president, Theodore Roosevelt, retained a touch of a Grinch himself. A committed conservationist, Roosevelt prohibited Christmas trees in his home and even in the White House. The Roosevelt children, however, smuggled Christmas trees into their bedrooms.
Christmas, 1914: In the midst of the Great War one of the most bizarre incidents took place on the battlefields of Flanders. While British and French troops watched in amazement from trenches, German soldiers began placing small Christmas trees outside their own trenches across “no man’s land.” Lit candles adorned the trees. Then the Germans sang Christmas songs with tunes familiar to all belligerents. The French and British soldiers soon joined the singing.
English-speaking German soldiers proposed a Christmas truce. British and French troops readily accepted. The most common message from the Germans was, “We not fight, you no fight.” Some British units constructed spur-of-the-moment “Merry Christmas” banners and waited for a reaction. The response was unbelievable.
Sworn enemies left their fighting positions and met in the middle of “no man’s land.” First, they buried their dead, then exchanged a mishmash of improvised gifts: tobacco, chocolate cake, newspapers, cognac and postcards. A Scot produced a soccer ball which was kicked around with enthusiasm. The game evolved into a regulation football match using caps and helmets laid out as goals. The Germans won, 3-2.
The Christmas truce was over by New Year’s Day. On both sides, the military hierarchy ordered a resumption of the killing under penalty of court martial. Reluctantly, the soldiers returned to their trenches. The Killing Season had returned. Several of the German units were sent to the Russian front as punishment.
The Scottish poet Fredrick Niven penned “A Carol from Flanders,” which ended: “O ye who read this truthful rime, From Flanders, kneel and say; God speed the time when every day, Shall be as Christmas Day.” Maybe his message was right on target for future generations pertaining to the absurdities of war.
Military leaders of World War II prevented a repeat of Christmas fraternization by issuing strict orders that such activity would be sternly punished, but one German mother didn’t care. During the Battle of the Bulge, three American soldiers who lost their way in the Ardennes Forest came upon a tiny cabin in the woods on Christmas Eve. They knocked on the door. Inside the cabin, Elisabeth Vincken and her 12-year-old son, Fritz, blew out candles before Elisabeth opened the door.
The three armed Americans, one seriously wounded, were motioned to come inside. Communicating in mutually broken French, Elisabeth told the American soldiers to warm themselves by the cozy chimney fire as she prepared them a meal. Fritz fetched potatoes and Hermann the rooster. The rooster was nicknamed after German Air Marshall Hermann Goering, who Elisabeth detested.
As poor old Hermann the rooster roasted, another knock was heard on the front door. Elisabeth discovered four armed German soldiers standing outside in the cold, they too were lost and hungry. A German corporal was in charge. Elisabeth told the German soldiers to enter her warm cabin but advised them that other soldiers were her guests who they would not consider “friends.” The German corporal replied, “It is the Holy Night and there will be no shooting here.” The Germans left their weapons outside. Elisabeth gathered all the American weapons then stacked them next to the Germans’.
Predictably, tensions ran high, although the scent of potatoes and poor old Hermann mellowed both parties. The Germans produced a loaf of bread and a bottle of wine while one of the German soldiers, a former medical student, treated the wounded American. Two of the German soldiers were only 16 years of age. As Elisabeth said grace over their meal, her son noticed tears in the soldiers’ eyes – both American and German.
The warring sides spent the night in the small cabin and departed the next morning. The German corporal told the Americans the direction to travel to avoid capture and provided them with a compass. Elisabeth returned their weapons, the seven sworn enemies shook hands, then departed the tiny cabin in opposite directions. Their “Christmas truce” was over.
Korea, Dec. 25, 1952: A C-47 Kyushu Gypsy (cargo plane) made several circles over a small and isolated Korean island. The kids below would always wave at the American aircraft and the Americans rocked their wings in return. But things were different on this Christmas Day. The cargo door suddenly opened. From low altitude, the loadmaster pushed out a container with parachute attached. The container was normally used to deliver mail, but this day it was packed with 100 pounds of candy bars.
The pilot, 1st Lt. Don Davis of Natchez, MS, stated in the Pacific Stars and Stripes newspaper, “We’ve been collecting candy bars for several months. We feel we now know them personally and we wanted to bring Christmas to them, even in a small way.” On every box of candy was a message in Korean, “Merry Christmas from the Kyushu Gypsies.”
Phan Thiet, Vietnam, Christmas Eve, 1969: Jim Schueckler recalled, “It was Christmas Eve but didn’t feel like it in Vietnam. The mess hall had been unusually quiet. Christmas music was playing, but nobody was talking or celebrating. The 1st platoon’s pilot hootch was particularly gloomy. They had recently lost four pilots and four crewmen, which put a damper on any chance of a holiday spirit.”
Scheuckler and his buddies decided to change the mood. They started collecting food and other “stuff” for the hospital at Dam Pao. With a Christmas truce in effect, their company commander gave the soldiers special permission for the holiday mission; he also donated money for the cause. Next, they raided a poker game and made a successful sales pitch to the gamblers for additional funds. Then they raided the camp for cookies, candy, even a gift package of cheese. They even raided the mess hall. but the cooks happily donated canned goods and cartons of food. An infantry unit offered several cases of freeze-dried foods and a medic at the dispensary donated extra bandages and dressings.
Christmas Day: Schueckler stated, “We got in the chopper and did our preflight, checking the rotor and the ‘Jesus nut,’ so-named because if it came off, ‘only Jesus could help you.’ We took off and headed for the mountains.” After a pit stop at Da Lat, the chopper flew on to the Phan Rang Air Base. A colonel asked if they would like a couple of American Red Cross Donut Dollies to accompany the flight. Schueckler said, “The chopper was filled with young men eagerly nodding their flight helmets and heads ‘Yes,’ so we got two Donut Dollies.”
Armed with an array of food, including sliced hot turkey and pumpkin pie, the chopper flew on as the Donut Dollies sprinkled laundry soap flakes onto the heads of American and Vietnamese soldiers, mimicking a snowfall. The Vietnamese soldiers thought the two Donut Dollies had gone bonkers.
As the chopper landed at Dam Pao, medical personnel, including nurses, sprinted for the Huey believing a load of wounded had arrived. They slowly lowered their folding stretchers to the ground upon realizing Christmas gifts were being distributed. One nurse started crying. The chopper crew visited the wards and staff and soon understood how much their gifts meant; the medical facility was primitive, almost as appalling as a Civil War hospital. The Christmas spirit gripped the hospital, and Project Concern, as the mission was called, turned out to be an outstanding success in the time of war.
Schueckler: “The flight back to Phan Thiet was marked with silence. I thought of my family and how I would be with them in just 12 days, and the good friends I would soon be leaving behind, and good friends that would never go home. I realized the unusual nature of that day. In the midst of trouble and strife, I would remember that Christmas Day in Vietnam as a time of sharing, happiness, love — and peace.”
Project Concern is still delivering necessities to the needy in Asia and several American cities. It is now an International organization based in San Diego, Calif.
In the frigid mountains of Afghanistan and on the searing sands of Iraq, plus dozens of other places worldwide, the men and women volunteers of the United States military continue to stand in Harm’s Way for Christmas and the coming New Year, and for us. The joy of Christmas versus the horror of war is assuredly a contradiction of “Peace on earth, goodwill toward men,” but there is eternal hope, for we celebrate the birth of the Prince of Peace on Christmas Day.
Merry Christmas, everybody.
Pete Mecca is a Vietnam veteran. For story consideration visit his website at aveteransstory.us and click on “contact us.”