(A relevant seasonal excerpt from my World War II novel, My Dear Cousin, which was completed and released last year at about this time. Part of the narrative is in letters, between two cousins; Vennie is an Army nurse serving in North Africa and Europe, Peg the wife of a Far East POW, waiting out the war in Australia, wondering for years if her husband is still alive.) The details of this 1942 Christmas holiday celebration in a military hospital was taken from this book.
Letter from Vennie to Peg, dated 26 December 1942, Postmarked APO NY, headed Arzew, Algiers
My dear Cuz:
We had our Christmas here in Algeria at the hospital and it was more beautiful and moving than I can describe. I should set the scene of it for you; the main hospital building has a central entrance hall across a small courtyard, with a wide staircase which goes halfway up the back wall with a dozen wide steps – there is a generous landing, from which two flights of narrower stairs go up along the wall to the second level. When I first arrived at this place, riding in the back of a jeep, crammed in with seven others, our legs hanging out every which way – I did not see this. It was as dark as a pit, and every inch of the floor of this hall was covered with stretchers of wounded. But as we took control of the city and calm and order returned. With hard work and dedication, our people have turned this back into a place of order and healing.
The wards are clean and airy, and the operating theater once again fully equipped with all the proper gear, brought up from the Army transports in the harbor. Our patients have clean linens and white sheets – blankets too, against the cold. You would not believe how cold North Africa is at night, during the winter!
We had such fun planning and creating a wonderful Christmas. It means so much to the men, and to us, so far away from home, and in a foreign and unfamiliar land. The comfortable rituals seem so much more meaningful. I believe that for the rest of my life I will remember this particular Christmas with much more clarity than those of my childhood, which seemed to all blend into one pleasant holiday blur, with not much to make any one of them stand out, not even the Christmases when I journeyed home to the ranch from Galveston.
Besides the candy that we made in the hospital kitchen – at least four hundred pounds of it! – the Red Cross director in Oran produced quantities of more hard candy, packets of cigarettes and small gifts for this enterprise, enough to fill every single stocking; all seven hundred of them! Our enlisted corpsmen at Arzew came up with tinsel slivered from the foil that X-ray plates come wrapped in, and many ornaments for the Christmas tree cut from empty tin plasma containers. A party among the Army engineers organizing the harbor went out into the country and cut a tall fir tree for us, which we put in the hospital foyer in a bucket of gravel and sand, just as we used to do at home. A sergeant among our patients (recovering nicely from an abdominal wound) was an art teacher in his previous life. He was busy cutting and folding heavy paper, and painting them with brushes and paint procured through the Red Cross (again, all honors to the director in Oran who found these items for us) to appear like lighted candles, pinecones, branches of evergreens, holly berries and leaves, and ornate bows and placards of Christmas greetings, to make garlands to adorn the lobby.
On the landing – which you must picture as being twelve steps up from the lobby floor – we had a small table, draped in white sheets, with more white sheets hung against the walls above, and a large cardboard cross, four feet tall, onto which we had hand-sewn purple bougainvillea blossoms was hung above it. (Purple was the proper color for the Christmas rites, so Muriel tells me. She would know, as she is quite devout.) The corpsmen had contrived a pair of elaborate candelabras, and filled them with wax tapers, and brought in some small palm trees planted in pots on either side of the altar, as well as two large vases filled with flowers behind the candelabras.
It was magnificent. Our Catholic chaplain, Father Powers began saying a solemn Christmas mass at midnight, at the foot of the altar. Any who wanted to attend were welcome. We had litter patients at the front, and ambulatory patients crowded in with the nurses and surgeons behind them. The choir of men – and they were all Catholic, Protestant and Jew together – began singing “Silent Night”. It was all so beautiful and deeply moving, Peg! I simply cannot describe to you how lovely it was. Although I am not Catholic and only indifferently Christian.
We had a small party afterwards, hosted by we nurses – with cookies and cocoa and then to our various beds. But in the morning, on Christmas morning, Captain Ro (Romanesco, our unit dentist) dressed in the Santa costume which we had made for him, of the same fabric that all of the Christmas stockings were sewn, and went around to all the wards, distributing Christmas stockings stuffed full of gifts: the candy, cigarettes and etc. I can’t even begin to express how happy the men were to receive these simple presents, or how thrilled we were, to observe their happiness. In the larger sense, we can really do so little for them, for those who have received crippling wounds, wounds which I fear may shorten many lives, or at least make life a challenge for them. But they were all so happy with their presents – as if they were all small boys, receiving the one thing that they most desired in all the world.
This simple holiday in a foreign land, in time of war, Peg – it all made it worthwhile to me.
All my love, to you and yours.