Christmas: 1942

4 minute read

No lighted candles beckoned from the windows on Boston’s stately Louisburg Square; the all-but-actual stage sets which lit up the facades of Hollywood homes last year were dark. Few firecrackers sputtered on the South’s sunlit streets; no lights shone from the giant fir trees in the thousands of village squares. Christmas, 1942, had moved indoors.

It would be a Christmas unlike any the U.S. people had ever seen, and one they would long remember. There was hardly a person who had not sent a package, or at least a letter, to a man in uniform; hardly a thoughtful man or woman who would not wonder what it might be like to spend Christmas in a tank on the road to Bizerte or perched in a palm tree in New Guinea.

(Back in 1917 there were but 1,325,000 men in uniform; this Christmas almost that many are already fighting abroad.)

It would be a prosperous Christmas. Throughout December, U.S. stores had been crowded as never before; sales topped those in 1941, when everyone had told himself it would be the last real Christmas for the duration. The people did not insist on luxuries, or on necessities ; they bought everything. With money jingling in their pockets, they swarmed up to the counters; they said wrap it up before they asked the price. In Cleveland, employes of Lincoln Electric Co. got bonuses averaging $3,000. In Beverly Hills, an uppity dowager surveyed the crowd in Saks’s swank shop, asked: “Who are all these people?” Cracked the salesgirl: “They’re cash customers.”

(Back in 1917, the new-rich were buying Chandler and Stearns automobiles, Sonora phonographs, French and Italian silk lingerie.)

Christmas 1942 would be a festival of strange and surprising changes. Phoenix, Ariz., called off its annual party for needy children (usually attended by 5,000): it could find no one to invite. In Fairview Village, a suburb of Cleveland, the community Christmas present would be a garbage collection: for lack of manpower there had been none for six weeks. In San Antonio’s Mexican churches the five-hour Los Pastores, with its Indian ritual and dances, would be curtailed: the most agile dancers were dancing with bayonets.

(Back in 1917, Americans were just learning the meaning of “Hooverize.”)

For the men in Army camps, it would be almost an overwhelming Christmas. The menus read like a meal for Gargantua. At San Antonio’s mammoth cadet aviation center, incoming packages averaged 12,000 a day. In Portland, 20 carloads of parcel post, mostly for soldiers, stood idle for days while the postmaster looked for help to distribute it. To the training center at Indio, Calif, would go 300 movie belles to dance with the soldiers.

(Back in 1917, soldiers got out their mouth harps, danced with one another; Schumann-Heink was touring the Army camps.)

Christmas, 1942, was the time when trains were jammed and trees were scarce, when turkey was high and the eggnog bowl low. It was a time when, despite the opulence of gifts in many homes, the people sang with fervor, in a peculiar popular ditty, that they just wanted to keep what they had. It was a time when a young Navy wife in Seattle said: “Last Christmas I worried if my husband would come home from the office sober enough to trim the tree. This year I wonder if he’ll come home from the Solomons—anytime.”

The pattern had changed; but the spirit was the same. The bells in the tall church spires would peal out across the land; the greetings, the hand clasps would be more heartfelt than ever. It would take more than a year of global war to dim out American good will.

(On Christmas day, 1917, the British Air Squadron thought it was doing well: it dropped one ton of bombs on Mannheim. Few days before, the Kaiser had roared in Berlin: “We must bring peace to the world by battering in with the iron fist and shining sword the doors of those who will not have peace.”)

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