This is a guest post by Sam Meier, a former LC Junior Fellow who is currently working on a variety of reference-related projects for the Veterans History Project (VHP).
December 25, 1917 found William James Bean in quarantine at Fort Hamilton in Brooklyn, New York. Bean had been inducted into the Army a little more than a week before. Unable even to roam the camp freely, Bean was distraught to be spending the holiday far from “Dear Old Syracuse,” away from his mother Harriet and his wife Mabel, whom he had married only six months earlier.
“Do you realise [sic] that this will be my first Xmas away from home + you. Twenty–eight of them,” he wrote to his mother.
By the next Christmas, Bean was even farther from home. He sent his family several holiday cards from somewhere in France. “Although I’m many miles away,” reads one. “My heart’s at home this Christmas Day.”
Holidays in the service come up repeatedly in veterans’ oral history interviews, as well as in photographs, correspondence, and other memorabilia donated to the Veterans History Project. Some of these items will be on display in the Veterans History Project Information Center (room LJ-G51) on December 20th at 10 a.m. and 2 p.m., as part of a special holiday-themed pop-up exhibit.
Bean’s correspondence echoes a sentiment common to active duty service members who spend some or all of the holiday season far from their loved ones—a longing for home.
Military families frequently send gifts and greetings to remind their loved ones that home is still there, waiting. In 1951, Marion Gurfein tape-recorded a very special holiday message to send to her husband Joe, who was stationed in Korea. The whole Gurfein family joined in the merriment.
Wherever they were, service members celebrated in whatever ways they could. Stories abound of trees festooned with Life Savers, oranges, strings of popcorn, or even empty beer cans.
In 2003, Dean Baratta was serving at an Army post near Bagram, Afghanistan. The week before Christmas, he survived his first rocket attack. His spirits were lifted on Christmas Day when a number of units decorated their vehicles and staged an impromptu holiday parade through the camp. Baratta told his friends and family via his blog that the parade was “one of the coolest things I’ve ever seen.”
Though many materials in VHP’s collections document Christmas celebrations, veterans of different faith traditions experienced the winter holidays differently. Few Jewish veterans specifically mention celebrating Hanukkah, though many recall observing Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur.
Joseph Brenner’s December 24, 1943 letter to his wife Norma is an exception to this rule. “I want to wish every-one a very happy Chanuka,” Brenner wrote. “I’ll be with you all in spirit I know.”
Instead of lighting a menorah himself, Brenner joined “all the Jewish boys” in his platoon at Fort Bragg, North Carolina in volunteering for “the necessary job of K.P. [kitchen patrol].” On Christmas Day, he peeled vegetables and prepared salads. Afterwards, he enjoyed the grandest dinner of his life. But what made the season truly special for Brenner was a far more humble meal. Another Jewish soldier in his platoon “got a whole salami and a lot of other real Yiddish stuff” in the mail, which he proceeded to share with Brenner and the other Jewish infantrymen. “It was wonderfull [sic],” exclaimed Brenner.
Brenner’s letter underscores the centrality of food to festivities in the service. VHP’s collections contain numerous commemorative menus for Thanksgiving and Christmas dinners served on military bases, aboard ships, and in foreign countries. Iraq War veteran Karren L. Brooks recalls spending one Christmas at a dining facility in Iraq decorated with beautiful ice sculptures and swans made of butter. “The holidays were amazing,” she said. “They did a lot to try and make it feel like being at home.”
For some veterans, the winter holidays were nothing special—especially if they didn’t celebrate them personally. “Christmas was Christmas. It was a work day,” said Aaron Fleck, a Jewish veteran of World War II. Similarly, Navy veteran Abdola Zooashkiyani recalled that he never felt sentimental about the holidays during the Persian Gulf War, as he was unable to abide by his own Islamic traditions.
For other veterans, the holidays absolutely had to be celebrated—and in style. Korean War veteran Harvey Berton Glassheim shared a dramatic story of his orders to ring in the New Year in his oral history interview.
The Veterans History Project extends warm wishes for the holiday season and the coming year—particularly to servicemen and women who are serving overseas, away from their friends, family, and usual holiday traditions.
On December 20th at 10 a.m. and 2 p.m., the Veterans History Project Information Center (room LJ-G51) will host a pop-up exhibition featuring holiday-themed items from VHP’s collections, ranging from 100-year-old greeting cards to contemporary photographs. Come learn more about the collections featured here and many more from the author herself. RSVP and get more details on Facebook.