Researched by Schoolcraft 10th graders Harmon Devries, Carter Graber and Carl Taylor; Written by Hayden Long
War conjures images of bloody battlefields, destruction, grit, and sacrifice. But is there a side of conflicts we pay less attention to? For example, what did those on front lines do to celebrate the holidays? Christmas for example? Were they able to observe the holidays? Or did the violence, tension, and savagery of war win out?
In the Revolutionary War, the Continental Army needed victory. In the winter of 1776, the odds weren’t looking all that good. The British had taken New York, and with it, the upper hand of the war, with the aid of Hessian mercenaries. Many American soldiers considered deserting as winter and the enemy closed in. Then, in a surprise Christmas Day attack on Hessian-occupied Trenton, New Jersey, the Americans crossed the ice-pocked Delaware and captured the town and 500 Hessian mercenaries. While it was a battle, it won more than territory: The capture was a boost to the revolutionaries’ morale, a reason to continue the fight.
As the bloody American Civil War carried on, troops on both sides longed for a shred of comfort and normality amid the carnage. In Union camps, the troops decorated their Christmas trees with what they could scrounge, goods like salt pork and hardtack biscuit. When Union General William Sherman captured Savannah, Georgia, in December 1864, his troops attached branches to heads of their horses as “antlers”. They rode these “reindeer” to provide Savannah residents with much-needed provisions.
In World War I, at least one Christmas was remembered fondly by soldiers as a brief and pleasant respite from the horrors of modern warfare. The famed Christmas Truce of 1914 occurred along many points on the Western Front between British and German troops. Liquor, rations, cigarettes and friendly banter were exchanged, with impromptu soccer games, burial of dead comrades and Christmas carols, sung in unison in two languages.
In World War II, many soldiers expressed frustration about fighting overseas by painting messages like “Merry Christmas, Hitler!” on bombs to be delivered to the enemy. But some acquired a day off if their unit wasn’t in direct combat. They received mail and packages from loved ones, perhaps with cookies and socks. Cooks made special Christmas and Thanksgiving meals for soldiers. Holiday breaks in the daily routine boosted morale, helping soldiers make it through the war.
In the Korean War, soldiers couldn’t spare the time to celebrate the holidays. They focused on surviving. In the freezing winter of 1950, for example, United Nations troops fought for their lives between Nov. 27-Dec.13, encircled by the Chinese troops in the Chosin Reservoir. Don Paradine, of Schoolcraft and a veteran Marine in the battle, remembers that it was “Very cold…flat cold … you just never thought you were going to get warm again.” UN forces retreated, and a hope of advent festivities was crushed beneath fleeing military leather boots.
Christmas during the Vietnam war was often surreal. North Vietnamese troops attacked the Americans and their South Vietnamese allies during the winter holiday, but the Allied troops still found time to celebrate. Men recounted decorating Christmas trees with battlefield debris – used ammunition boxes, spent artillery shells.
Soldiers of many nations have endured horrific trials and have managed to uphold the holiday spirit. If they found refuge in these our holiday traditions, can we, too, in these troubled times, look to the holidays as a source of hope?