Christmas at Wartime

During the Revolutionary War, for at least some soldiers there was no thought of celebrating Christmas. On the eve of December 25, 1776, then General George Washington crossed the frozen Delaware River to lead his cold, hungry, and tired, troops to one of the decisive battles of the war.

One hundred years later, during the Civil War, the war stopped for Christmas. Troops on both sides had a day of rest. “Alfred Bellard of the 5th New Jersey noted, ‘In order to make it look 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.'”

Similarly, for a few hours during World War I, arguably one of the deadliest and most violent wars on record, the guns were silent. The tales are legendary, but well documented Troops on both sides set down their weapons, came out of their trenches and shared food, song and comradeship, if not friendship.

War in the modern era has few if any such heart-warming tales.

In World War II, one of the fiercest battles–the Battle of the Bulge–occurred in the last weeks of December 1944. In the Ardennes, near Bastogne, the Americans were caught by a surprise attack of 200,000 Germans determined to split the Allied forces. The Americans for their part, recognized that everything was on the line. There was little time to observe Christmas–a truce was out of the question. A few of the men were lucky to have a company chaplain lead their prayers, for others Belgians opened their homes, but many spent their hours on the battlefield.

From the Korean War forward, because of advances in transportation, more secure bases in the theater of war, embedded journalists with photographic equipment, and today’s smart phone images, there are more accounts of Christmas celebrations no matter how small. From a meager but memorable midnight mass on the frozen Korean Peninsula, humble tinsel-adorned trees standing in mortar pits, and presidential visits to the troops in the Mideast, we are fed photos of smiling soldiers on taking a break.

Nevertheless, there are those today who are not taking a break, who are spending the day, holding their breath and staring across a no-man’s land at an enemy. Let us give thanks, say a prayer, and remember them in our celebrations.


Photo caption: Christmas dinner in Bastogne, Belgium, during the German siege, 1944. Photo taken 12/25/1944. National Archives

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