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Not a Happy Christmas

Christmas Under Fire, 1944

In 1944, Christmas was celebrated for the sixth time since the Second World War had broken out on September 1, 1939. Men who often shared the same religious background fought each other to the death in sharp contrast with the old Christmas message of Peace on Earth. Christmas under Fire, 1944 tells about this last war time Christmas. Below an excerpt from this book. This part is about how Christmas was celebrated in the United States.

It was not a happy Christmas in the U.S. More Americans than ever had been sent overseas to the front. Since D-Day on June 6, 1944, thousands of them had been killed or wounded. In addition to living rooms at the home front being decorated with Christmas wreaths and mistletoe, increasingly more small flags with gold, silver or blue stars were hung in windows. A blue star meant that a family member had been sent overseas for military service, the silver star meant that a family member had been wounded, and the gold star meant someone had been killed in action. Although rationing was far less stringent than in Europe, home cooks had to use margarine for the first time during Christmas instead of real butter, and for example sugar, meat, cooking oil and canned goods were rationed as well. Asked what people wanted for Christmas the vast majority of responses included the end of the war and the return of fathers and sons.

In order to feel connected with their next of kin overseas, this year Christmas greetings were once more massively exchanged through V-mail, the military mail using micro film. During the war, 1.5 million messages would be transmitted though this medium. If someone wanted to send flowers from the front to his mother, wife or girlfriend, he could make use of “flowers by wire” whereby flowers could be ordered by headquarters radio communication to the U.S. and then be delivered to the address desired.

While in many European countries, the sending of Christmas cards decreased sharply, this was not the case in the U.S. Not that there wasn’t a shortage of paper: because of the draft, the timber industry suffered a shortage of workers (the supply of Christmas trees was just enough in 1944 ), and too little wood pulp was reaching the paper mills. Recycling was the solution however. “Every scrap of paper, every piece of cardboard of your Christmas wrappings should be salvaged and turned in to make new paper and cardboard for our forces,” Life Magazine wrote on December 25, 1944. The army needed it for packing and wrapping ammunition, food stuffs, blood plasma, medicines and other supplies. After the attack on Pearl Harbor, the War Department had initially ordered a reduction of the use of paper, which severely reduced the release of Christmas cards. A group of publishers successfully protested against this. To meet the army half way, the group launched projects benefiting the war effort, such as campaigns to buy defense stamps, the profits of which flowed into the funds of the War Department. Consumers could collect the stamps and later exchange them for government war bonds.

Post cards with various themes were released for the home front, but the American flag or its colors were often depicted. Uncle Sam, the Statue of Liberty and other characteristic American symbols were also frequently seen. Humorous and cartoon-like images of GIs were popular, as were funny drawings of Santa Claus exchanging his sleigh for an army jeep or a military aircraft. Cards were tailored for mothers, wives, girlfriends and other senders. Special post cards were printed by divisions and other army or navy units. They depicted, for instance, divisional badges or the vessel the sender sailed on. Servicemen could send post cards from Paris showing the Eiffel Tower flying the American flag and depicting other points of interest in the French capital.

French Christmas Card
A Christmas card American servicemen and women could send to the home front from Paris in 1944.

 

The enemy also turned to the American military with post cards. The Japanese for instance had already distributed seven different cards in 1942 during the battle for Guadalcanal, four of them depicting a pin-up girl with beautiful legs. The text had allegedly been written by a wife at home and was meant to evoke home sickness.[i] The Germans took it a step further by distributing a Christmas message during the Ardennes offensive, suggesting to the GIs to return to the U.S. slightly wounded or sick. “Christmas in the States? Well? Why not?” the message reads, which was accompanied by an image and description of a traditional Christmas celebration in the U.S. with “roasted pork, cranberry sauce, mashed potatoes, gravy and meat pie, the best ever.”[ii]

Apart from publishers of post cards, other American enterprises adapted to the Christmas holidays in war time. This was obvious for instance from the ads in Life Magazine. During the first years of the war, these ads were often of a somber nature. “We shall ride this storm through!” watchmaker Hamilton assured the public in 1942 with a drawing of the Statue of Liberty shrouded in dark clouds. An accompanying text explained that this year only a limited supply of watches was available as the company was busy producing precision instruments for the army.[iii] In the same year, Texaco pictured a sad Dutch farmer with the text: “Patience, Pieter, patience…” The company that delivered fuel to the armed forces promised that the Dutchman would have to wait just a little longer. “Our [fighting] machine is almost ready… almost ready to help sweep that evil machine from your country, from Europe, from the good green earth… forever.” Also in 1942, General Electric launched a double-page ad with a sad-looking girl next to a Christmas tree with the accompanying text: “The Light no war will ever dim.”[iv]

 

Not a Happy Christmas

 

In contrast with peacetime ad messages, many wartime ads called for thriftiness. In 1943, the American Meat Institute urged consumers not to waste any meat. Even the last drop of gravy had to be eaten during Christmas dinner.[i] Other organizations were eager to let the consumer know how they contributed to the war effort. That same year, Curtiss Wright Corporation placed an ad explaining how an aircraft manufacturer producing transport aircraft contributed to the delivery of blood plasma to field hospitals. An illustration is shown of a young soldier whose life is being saved by “wise” surgeons in an open air field hospital with a blinking star in the sky, an unmistakable reference to the Christmas story.[ii]

From 1944 on, the ads grew more optimistic in nature. They had already been printed prior to the Ardennes offensive on the assumption that an Allied victory was imminent. Coca Cola placed a particularly cheerful ad (Have a “Coke” = Merry Christmas) in the form of an illustration of a cozy living room with a Christmas tree, where a few soldiers and their family were celebrating. It was probably the dream of many Americans in the armed forces but far from reality for many.[iii] Chocolate manufacturer Whitman’s placed a joyous ad as well, depicting a woman dressed as Santa Claus with a picture of her husband in uniform on her dressing table.[iv]

Car manufacturer Studebaker placed an ad with a more traditional vision of Christmas. Beneath an image of an illuminated church in a snowy landscape, a serious text included: “Mankind again will live with dignity and pride in the clean atmosphere of triumph over tyranny.”[i] Manufacturer of vacuum cleaners Hoover placed a somewhat ambiguous message: men were advised to give their wives a war bond for Christmas but not without adding the slogan: “Give her a Hoover and you give her the best.”[ii] In 1944, women’s emancipation was still far away.

Not a Happy Christmas

 

[1] The Library of Congress, I’ll be Home for Christmas, p. 117.

[1] A Century of Christmas Memories, p.57; ‘Rationing for the war effort’, www.nationalww2museum.org/students-teachers/student-resources/research-starters/take-closer-look-ration-books.

[1] Litt, M., Christmas 1945, p.38.

[1] The Library of Congress, I’ll be Home for Christmas, p. 117.

[1] Weitraub, S., 11 Days in December, p. 80.

[1] ‘Christmas Tree Supply Just Meets the Demand’, Chicago Tribune, 24 Dec. 1944.

[1] ‘Wanted! Christmas wrappings’, Life Magazine, 25 Dec. 1944.

[1] Felchner, W.J., ‘Collectible World War II Christmas Cards’, Bukisa.com, 08 Mar. 2010.

[1] Waggoner, S. Christmas Memories, pp. 65-66.

[1] Kushian, J., ‘Have Yourself a Nasty Little Christmas’, America in WWII, December 2010; Felchner, W.J., ‘Collectible World War II Christmas Cards’, Bukisa.com, 08 Mar. 2010.

[1] Thompson, J., De bevrijding, p. 31.

[1] Life Magazine, 21 Dec. 1942.

[1] Life Magazine, 21 Dec. 1942.

[1] Life Magazine, 20 Dec. 1943.

[1] Life Magazine, 20 Dec. 1943.

[1] Life Magazine, 18 Dec. 1944.

[1] Life Magazine, 18 Dec. 1944.

[1] Life Magazine, 18 Dec. 1944.

[1] Life Magazine, 04 Dec. 1944.