Holidays on the Frontlines
A History of Celebrations by Deployed Troops
December 13, 2013 by Mark Dye
Korean KP decorates Christmas tree set up in front of serving counter of HQs & HQs Co, 19th Inf Regt, 24th US Inf Div, as Christmas Day dinner is readied for men of the Co. Korea. 25 December 1951. Source: http://www.history.army.mil/html/reference/holidays/christmas/korea.html
Christmas is a time for peace, fellowship, giving and, let’s be honest... also a bit of receiving. For troops on the frontlines, it’s something that reminds them what they’re fighting for and that, someday, the fighting will end.
How deployed personnel have spent holidays has changed through the years, matching changes in how days like Christmas have been celebrated by society in general. Here we track that history, going from what amounted to just another day during Revolutionary times, to being seen as one of the highlights of the year in the 21st century.
This might seem hard to believe now, but there was a time when Christmas was outlawed in parts of New England. In fact, while some celebrated the holiday for many days throughout December and January, it really didn’t gain popularity until the mid-1800s.
This might be why one of the most famous events in American history took place on Christmas Day in 1776: the crossing of the Delaware River by George Washington and his troops. For them, it was another day in a long and, at that point, bitterly cold winter; there were certainly no thoughts of sugarplums dancing in anyone’s heads. All they wanted were dry clothes, shoes and their own warm beds.
Washington went on to make even more history on a Christmas day—this time in 1783, when he stepped down as leader of the Revolutionary Army.
While it would be another several years following the end of the war before Christmas became an official federal holiday (in 1885), it was starting to resemble more of the modern celebration we know today…even if the types of gifts were quite different.
Back then, fresh fruit was rare—especially fruit that was out of season—so getting an orange in December was a great gift. The decorating of a tree was also gaining popularity: Alfred Bellard, a soldier who served in the 5th New Jersey of the Union Army, noted that “in order to make it look as much like Christmas as possible, a small tree was stuck up in front of our tent, decked off with hard tack and pork, in lieu of cakes and oranges, etc.”
Another Soldier, John Haley of the 17th Maine, wrote that, “It is rumored that there are sundry boxes and mysterious parcels over at Stoneman’s Station directed to us. We retire to sleep with feelings akin to those of children expecting Santa Claus.” (Click here to read a poem written by a Confederate soldier on Christmas Eve 1862.)
The holiday served as an escape from the horrors of war—a trend that would carry over into future conflicts.
World War I
WWI was—and remains—one of the bloodiest conflicts in human history. Any break in the trench warfare that had seized most of Europe was certainly welcome by those doing the fighting, leading to one of the most famous Christmas happening in any war: the unofficial truce along the front in 1914, called “Silent Night.”
It actually began a few days before Dec. 25th, when soldiers from both sides began to share greetings with each other and even singing songs together. Some soldiers decided to venture into “No Man’s Land” (the space between front lines) during Christmas Eve and the next day, unsure of what to expect. Most of them were rewarded for their actions. The two sides met each other in the field, shared a few small gifts (usually chocolate or cigarettes), and preformed burial ceremonies. There were even friendly games of soccer. (You can read the facts and myths about Silent Night at Snopes.com.)
The truce was by no means universal or official (some who tried to share good tidings wound up being shot) but it was, for a majority, a time to remind themselves of their own humanity and that, yes, the fighting would end someday.
World War II
Men of the USS Lexington celebrating Christmas with a Santa suited up for firefighting. 1944. Source: http://www.flickr.com/photos/usnationalarchives/4185020493/
The Second World War saw a number of changes in how battles were fought and troops were supported. There was a great deal of rationing during this time in the U.K. and America, so simple things such as books and even soap were seen as suitable (and welcome) gifts.
Another change was the evolution of powered flight, which allowed for many more packages to be sent to the front lines, thus leading to what we now call “care packages.” These would usually include a letter, as well as things like candy and chocolate and other trappings of home. These small gifts, along with the singing of carols, helped get the troops’ minds off fighting for a day or so. Those in the Navy were a bit more limited and harder to reach so they focused on preparing a nice holiday meal for the crew and creating makeshift Christmas trees out of what they could find on board.
One holiday distraction that continued throughout the war—and even into subsequent conflicts—was a USO show, with perhaps the most famous being the ones put on by Bob Hope. The talented entertainer put on a total of 57 shows for the troops from 1941 through 1991, providing service members with a way to relax and put aside the challenges of war—at least for a short time.
Men of Co "F", 9th Inf Regt, 2nd U.S. Inf Div, enjoy their Christmas Day dinner at CO HQS, Korea. 25 December 1951. Source:
Those serving in the Korean War celebrated the holidays in much the same way they did in WWII: a few treats sent from home, perhaps a nice meal at the mess, and makeshift trees put on display and decorated with whatever could be found.
Another WWII holdover was the USO show, which could be listened to on the radio when troops couldn’t be there in person. Navy personnel were able to celebrate a bit more than they had a decade earlier thanks to the lack of direct ship-to-ship fighting, allowing them to have more elaborate celebrations than in WWII (though how much still depended on the ship, captain, and crew).
The Army Band plays Christmas music at the Tan Nhut Airbase during the holiday season. 22-29 Dec 1970. Source:
Holiday celebrations during the Vietnam War were much different than those in past conflicts. There were large events throughout the military, with various USO shows and larger care packages the norm. Usually, someone in a unit would dress as Santa Claus to hand out “presents” (usually small items) and Christmas trees would be frequently seen.
Making things as much like home as possible was seen as a great way to boost morale for those on the frontlines. For most of those in the Navy, it was a typical Navy Christmas: some sort of special meal and makeshift decorations and trees. Improvements in communication and air travel also made it easier to stay in touch with those at home.
War on terror
An inflatable nativity decorates a church tent in Afghanistan. Source: http://www.ajc.com/photo/lifestyles/holiday/troops-celebrate-christmas-away-home/pmpCw/
How the modern military celebrates the holidays is quite different than celebrations from years past. It is a much bigger day for those who serve, and it often starts weeks before Dec. 25th. Decorations abound, up to and including full-on Christmas trees and even inflatable decorations that one would find in the average suburb (see image).
Modern technology such as video chat also makes it much easier to contact loved ones in a way that makes it almost seem as though you’re sitting in the same room. And, of course, the ubiquitous care packages are prevalent.
We’re able to enjoy the holidays in peace thanks to the sacrifices of our men and women in uniform. And while we’d love for all of them to enjoy the season here at home, they’ve found ways to take the holiday spirit with them over there—wherever “there” might be.
Civil War: http://www.civilwar.org/education/history/on-the-homefront/culture/christmas-during-the-civil-war.html
WWI: "The Truce of Christmas, 1914" by Thomas Vinciguerra. New York Times. December 25, 2005.