Christmas 2020: no doubt this will be a holiday to remember, but not in a good way. Millions of Americans will be kept from going home because of the ravages of pandemic. To protect those we love, we must stay away from each other.
It was a very different Christmas 75 years ago. The war in Europe had ended in May and the war in the Pacific was over by September. “I’ll be home for Christmas” was the song and a sentiment that captured the season when the greatest generation returned to those they loved. Christmas in 1945 was special.
Getting home by December 25 was the prize that burned in the hearts of millions of soldiers. Many wouldn’t make it: some had made the ultimate sacrifice and others were injured and in military hospitals. And most common reason for not getting home was the simple fact that all those soldiers — even those stateside — couldn’t find a way to get there for the big day.
It wasn’t for a lack of trying. As early as September, the military launched “Operation Magic Carpet” to bring as many troops home as soon as possible. And as the holidays grew closer, “Operation Santa Claus” added to the number of men and women on the move.
Here in Iowa, all was in readiness. “Peace has come and a lot of boys will be home for Christmas,” wrote one observer, “and even those who don’t come home at least won’t have their Christmas in a fox hole!” It was the best Christmas present that anyone could imagine.
There were plans for Christmas dances, parties, and other celebrations. And with so much gratitude came a return to church. Iowans of all faiths made plans to thank God for his blessings. Congregations overflowed with returning veterans and their families.
Particularly popular was the Midnight Mass at St. Joseph’s Parish in rural Johnson County. Although common in current times, midnight liturgies were the exception in 1945. The Mass at St. Joseph’s was so popular with out-of-towners that the pastor issued tickets so that local folks could find places in the pews!
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More somber was the memory of those not present on Christmas Day — the soldiers who had given their lives for this country. All Americans prayed that God would be with those Gold Star families and fill the vacancy in their hearts and homes.
Most of the soldiers who returned home for Christmas in 1945 are no longer with us. In fact, it is estimated that less than 3 percent of those who served in World War II are still alive today. But thanks to blessed memory, these patriots have not been forgotten. They still have a place in our hearts at Christmas.
And 75 years from now, Americans will look back on this year’s Christmas with reflection and empathy. The care we show for one another this year will ensure that coming generations can celebrate many Christmas holidays in the future. This year, staying at a distance physically will bring us closer together spiritually. Merry Christmas, one and all.
Timothy Walch is director emeritus of the Herbert Hoover Presidential Library in West Branch and a member of the Iowa Historical Records Advisory Board. Twalch47@gmail.com