Christmas has always been an important holiday in the U.S., but it took on a special meaning during World War II (1941-45) because so many families had loved ones serving in the armed forces that they could not return home for Christmas. Although the Second World War did not have holidays, Americans at home and overseas did everything they could to celebrate Christmas. Christmas 1941 was not much different for most Americans than the year before, even though the disaster of Pearl Harbor had occurred just weeks earlier.
It is sad to remember when looking back on Christmas 1940, that the holiday was not a joyous one for all Americans. The Christmas season offered the hope that although so many were absent this year, the war might end the following year, and missing family members could come home. The G.I.s, not yet at home at Christmastime in 1940, celebrated anyway, happy to be back on American soil.
Ironically, although GIs abroad could not be with their families at that time, their fighting the war ensured they would be free to spend future Christmas holidays with their families. Citizens even volunteered to sacrifice a Christmas spent with family back home in America to bring veterans home for New Year’s Eve.
So masses of American servicemen–some 250,000 of them, some carrying brand-new discharge papers, others only days or two from separation–found themselves on American soil again on Christmas Day, 1945, but still not entirely at home. The war’s end barely meant the 2,000,000 men and women eligible for separation–those who might have been done on active duty–were back at home on the two civilians when America’s Christmas came.
In the Pacific, the Americans involved in a costly island-hopping tour to the Philippines and Japan were unaware of Christmas. Being separated from family and friends over the holidays made the wars all the more difficult for those serving, but creativity and generosity made Christmas meaningful and memorable. Any widespread Christmas Day truce for 1944 was not possible, because only nine days before Christmas, the Germans launched the largest counteroffensive of the war in the West, which led to the Battle of the Bulge and a ferocious battle for the entire holiday.
The first German Christmas of World War II was celebrated in December 1939, when the front was mostly quiet; the western allies and region were at the height of what was called a phony war, in between the time following the invasion of Poland in September 1939 and the invasion of Norway in April 1940. There were few opportunities for similar events during the Second World War since American troops were only in relatively close contact with German forces in North Africa and Italy before the D-Day landings in 1944. While the 1914 Christmas Truce has achieved legendary status in the history of World War I, little has been written about comparable events involving American troops.