By Dr. Mark DePue
Christmas is a season of joy, of bustling shopping malls, of family gatherings around tables groaning with food, and of gift giving. For Christians, it is also a time to remember the birth of a tiny baby, placed in a manger and totally vulnerable, but sent to save us from ourselves.
Most of us will miss some of our cherished traditions this years, captives of the coronavirus pandemic, having reluctantly adjusted our lives in fundamental ways. We will grieve our separation from loved ones and pine for a return to normalcy. But given all of that, it might be helpful to remember that sometimes those who came before us dealt with tough times as well. We can find strength and inspiration in how they found ways to celebrate even in times of adversity.
Evelyn Field knew about tough times as a small child growing in Nebraska during the dust bowl. “You put little pieces of paper in the strips of the window,” recalled Evelyn about those dust storms. “You closed your shades, you closed your curtains—and this is hot; it’s 120 outside in the sun—and you stayed inside the house just to try to get away from the dust.” But Evelyn also remembered the magic of the Christmas season, made even more special by the Christmas tree in her church:
Harold Steele also remembered the hard times during the Great Depression. He grew up on a farm near tiny Dover, Ill., in a family that struggled mightily to make ends meet. But despite his family’s financial challenges, it did not diminish the excitement he felt during the Christmas season:
Ernest Thorp was another child of the depression, and another Illinois farm boy. By August 1944, however, he was a B-17 co-pilot flying his eighteenth mission over Nazi Germany. When his bomber was hit by flak, he bailed out over the North Sea and was pulled from the water by a German fisherman. Thorp spent the rest of the war as a POW during a time Germany faced growing food shortages, with the POWs barely surviving on 800 calories a day. They craved two things – food of any kind, and mail from home. Many years later, Ernest read from his memoirs about the Christmas season he spent as a POW:
Ernest and the other prisoners decided to celebrate on Christmas day, gorging themselves on the recently arrived Red Cross parcels. “Come Christmas Day,” he wrote, “we had [our barracks] decorated up from odds and ends. For breakfast, we were treated to toasted sandwiches, then at 1:15 we began our feast and had an eight-course bash. It was a masterpiece of cooking, and I was filled till I was miserable. Finally, at 3:05, with pant flaps open, we finished. Soon there was a parade to the aborts, and I was one. Then at seven o’clock, we had cake, pastries and mince pies, and I was completely filled up, so up and into my hoard [the rest] went. Finished the day in room eating some more and singing songs and playing poker. … I had attended ‘The Messiah’ earlier, carol-singing on Christmas Eve and services in the morning. That was Christmas 1944 in a PW camp in Germany.”
For Thorp and his fellow prisoners, Christmas marked a very good day in a year otherwise defined by hunger, despair and uncertainty. Thorp and his fellow POWs refused to be denied the true spirit of Christmas.
A generation later and half a world away, F-4 co-pilot Gary Sigler was nearing the end of a six years of captivity in the infamous Hanoi Hilton. He had spent his first couple of years in solitary confinement, alone in a dark, damp cell, interrupted only when he was interrogated and tortured. The last few years, following his reunion with fellow prisoners, were better. Still, the POWs received no Red Cross parcels to supplement their meager rations, and precious little mail from home. Toward the end of their captivity when peace talks had commenced, the POWs’ treatment improved. Gary remembers one Christmas in particular which occurred shortly before a visit from a Japanese film crew, ostensibly to prove how well the POWs were being treated:
It didn’t take much for the residents of the Hanoi Hilton to celebrate the season, just a bit of turkey, a sip of wine, some crudely made cigars and festive entertainment, and perhaps most important, the hope that they might soon be released and spend their next Christmas with loved ones back home.
And finally, we return to World War II and to another member of America’s "greatest generation." In late December 1944, nineteen-year-old paratrooper Vince Speranza found himself in the Belgian town of Bastogne, which was totally encircled by a German force determined to seize that crucial crossroad during the Battle of the Bulge. His division, the 101st Airborne, was the only thing blocking the Nazis’ advance to the sea. Vince tells of his encounter with a Belgian family forced from their home by German shelling, a story long forgotten until a return trip to Bastogne over 65 years later:
Hard times did not deter these Americans from finding ways to celebrate the Christmas season. Their examples of perseverance, courage and ingenuity can inspire us to do the same in these trying times today.
To hear more of their stories, visit the ALPL oral history website, at www.oralhistory.illinois.gov.
Mark DePue is the director of the Oral History Program at the ALPLM.
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