When Christmas Invaded a War

Karen WhitingBy Karen Whiting7 Minutes

It was called ‘The War to End All Wars,’ but after four long years of murderous conflict, with the death of millions of soldiers and civilians, nobody believed that anymore. The fighting had finally stopped in November, and now the world held its breath waiting for an official peace treaty. Nearly all the soldiers remained at their stations as the cold winter set in and another Christmas away from home and family approached.

But unknown to the Allied soldiers in the heat of a battle-torn summer, Christmas preparations had begun in July 1918, four months before Germany surrendered. The YMCA, Red Cross, and other organizations secretly carried out a massive campaign to surprise the Allied troops and the French people. Newspapers in the United States remained silent and only disclosed the details on December 22.

On Christmas day, all 1,500 YMCA huts in Europe displayed decorated Christmas trees, held festive caroling and church services, and then passed out Christmas boxes to every soldier – more than two million men. Volunteers at each hut dressed up as Santa Claus and distributed gifts to French children everywhere. Santas and soldiers then fanned out into the countryside and gave presents of toys plus candies to millions of French children. More than four million candy bars and two million packages of chewing gum were distributed.

Each wounded serviceman in the hospitals woke to find a bright red stocking hanging at the end of the cot, filled with candy, a pocketknife, and other comforts. The men also enjoyed entertainment as every YMCA location performed a comedy sketch, Mistletoe and Onions, written especially for the men.

A Special Surprise

In Montigny, a little French village of 600 people, with gray stone homes and red-tiled roofs, and a hospital for the men, the people enjoyed a special treat. President and Mrs. Wilson celebrated Christmas there with the 26th Infantry Division. They also visited the army headquarters in Chaumont.

At home in the U.S., the news of the impending peace, along with stories about Christmas for the soldiers, marines, and sailors lifted spirits. Christmas Eve began with hymns and carols sung in Madison Square, and other community gathering squares across America, all decorated with Christmas trees. On Christmas morning, people crowded into churches of all denominations as congregations heard messages of peace and hope. They applauded the servicemen as soldiers of the Prince of Peace, and some concluded with singing The Star-Spangled Banner.

Festivities after services in New York City included entertaining 10,000 soldiers. The War Camp Community Service distributed 10,000 stockings filled with items to wear and candy, as well as theater tickets. Restaurants, theaters, clubs, and families hosted men, provided meals, and gave gifts.

The joy overflowed into communities across America, but especially in New York City. To help the poor and less fortunate, the New York City police ran a huge toy drive and distributed gifts to the needy. They opened all the stations for parties, with Christmas trees decorated with little toys and candies.

The Red Cross helped coordinate the effort, especially with hospitals in England and other countries who nursed American wounded. Father Christmas paid a visit that day and soldiers gathered together to read letters from home. Local orphans visited the troops and in turn, the men gave gifts to the children. They all gathered around a tree decorated and topped with an American flag to remember the day.

In Paris, the Red Cross included mothers and their babies in a reception. They distributed gifts and included a “Punch and Judy” puppet show as part of the entertainment. Army nurse Florence Edith Hemphill bought 12 pounds of chocolate from the American commissary in Paris for her patients at the British Hospital.[1]

Christmas Around the World

Celebrations also took place among the German troops during that first post-war holiday season. In Coblenz, Germany, soldiers set up a Christmas tree in front of a government building and covered it with long strands of lights. Live music played, and local people gathered. Soldiers gave out paper trumpets and goodies to the children.[2] Families added to the soldier’s joy with packages they sent to loved ones who shared what they received.

Other countries planned and carried out similar activities for their troops. The Australian Red Cross distributed 60,000 Christmas boxes in hospitals and camps. The Australian YMCA planned entertainment for troops in France and England with dinners that included turkey and puddings.[3]

Anne Steese Richardson, who wrote of this special day in history, expressed how giving to the soldiers helped to make Christmas wonderful in 1918. “The heart has come back into Christmas. Every American who dares claim that proud title is looking about eagerly for the opportunity to give, with comfort, cheer, kindliness under the wrappings of the gift.”[4]

Excerpt from “Stories of Faith and Courage from the Home Front” by Karen Whiting and Jocelyn Green, AMG Publishers, with added material by Karen Whiting.

[1] https://www.legion.org/magazine/239996/christmas-front


[3] https://trove.nla.gov.au/newspaper/article/15817659

[4] Soldiers All, Woman’s Home Companion, December 1918, Volume XLV Number 12, published by the Crowell Publishing Company, Springfield OH, page 16