Betty M. Olson: Wartime Christmas
For many Minnesotans, service abroad meant leaving all things familiar behind. Being so far from home was especially difficult on holidays. While the armed services tried to create a festive atmosphere for the troops, thoughts inevitably drifted toward home, and memories of holidays with family, along with packages from loved ones, helped to sustain servicemen and women through the loneliest times. Betty Magnuson Olson of Duluth was stationed in Paris, France during Christmas 1944, and wrote about her experiences in letters to her family.
24 December 1944
Well, "'twas the night before Christmas" and naturally we're all thinking about what's going on at home. I suppose the recent war news* has more or less put a damper on a really "merry" Christmas at home, too. It's cold enough today to make one think it's Christmas, but no snow. Water in the streets is frozen, tho'.
I hope to get near a radio about ten tonight. It's going to be odd to hear President Roosevelt's Christmas Eve message at night instead of late afternoon, and it will seem odder still to hear the King of England in the afternoon of Christmas Day rather than early in the morning. Well, lots of things are odd this year.
I've received one other gift so far aside from all the boxes from home. One of the colonels in the O.C.O.T. gave Berta and I each a bottle of wonderful perfume. We thought it was very sweet of him because we don't work for him except in a round-about way. And then - ssh - we were also given a bottle of champagne, so we're going to sneak(!) it into our billets and have a bit of a party! Hm - I'll bet you think Paris has corrupted me, but champagne over here is in about the same class as lemonade back home.
It's rather hard for us to imagine Christmas back in the States. We know it isn't the same old Christmas we've always known but we think of it as such. Snow and trees and holly and lights and music. Well, maybe next year we'll be there to enjoy it all, too.
*Editor's note: the bloody Battle of the Bulge had begun on December 16th and continued on through Christmas.
We've really had a very nice Christmas. In fact, very nice indeed. America got the best gift it could with headlines in Stars and Stripes, "Yanks stop Nazi attack" and with a beautiful moonlit Christmas Eve and a crisp sunny Christmas Day. Never thought I'd be so close to war that I'd be thankful for clear weather!
I worked Christmas Day because I wanted to. We discussed it very calmly as to who would work and who would be off. I much preferred working to sitting around a Paris hotel. Going along the street to work there were quite a few people out and since they were all Americans - Army - the "Merry Christmases" flew thick and fast. A bunch of fellows going by in a jeep would yell, "Merry Christmas, Sarge" - or "Merry Christmas WACie." And, of course, once in the office building there were Merry Christmases from everyone for everyone. I think that proves something or other. That in the midst of a war which we're very close to, and without any Christmas atmosphere except that we make ourselves, Americans could stil keep a Christmas spirit. However, I'm afraid our thoughts on Christmas Eve seeing the wonderful "Bomber's Moon" were not those of "Peace on Earth" but rather of out and out slaughtering of the Germans. But we didn't think it was too much out of place since that is the only way we will ever have "Peace on Earth." But it was really pleasant working with such a nice spirit around. people went around munching nuts and candy (lots of packages from home) and a young lieutenant from Minneapolis and myself agreed we were missing a real Minnesota "White Christmas."
The surprise of Christmas for me and a very wonderful surprise indeed was my gift from General Ross - a wrist watch! Honestly. He gave each of his office "staff" one. Berta and I said we're going to keep ours to show to our great-great grandchildren! I've seldom been so dumbfounded.
Christmas Eve was very nice. I got out early to take part in the singing under the Arc de Triomphe, which was a total flop and quite disgusting. We'd rather forget about that. Then at 6:30 we went to candle light services at the American cathedral. Some of the WACs sang with the regular choir. I hadn't practiced so didn't want to. The services were really beautiful - mostly all music. Two little old ladies were sitting next to me - it was mostly military but there were a few civilians - and one told me that the other, for the past two years, had been in hiding from the Germans, so this was a special Christmas for her.
After the services we waited outside church for the trucks which were going to take us to a General Hospital for caroling. We "warmed" up on the way by singing good old winter songs like "Jingle Bells." The boys were so swell. They'd insist on all the girls coming in the various wards so they could see us all, and several of the more energetic ones chased a WAC or two down the hall with a piece of mistletoe. We'd keep picking up fellows who were well able to walk and when we wound up it seemed there were hundreds of us. They all wanted "White Christmas" over and over again. We sang so much and so hard that we were all hoarse when we got done. We could tell they all enjoyed it very much, and they all thanked us so. Lots of them didn't say much, some couldn't do much talking, but we could tell by their faces that they were liking it. We agreed it was the very best way to spend Christmas Eve.
After we got back to our hotel, Dorothy and I went into Berta's room for the Captain's (in our office) Christmas gift - a bottle of champagne. Betty had gotten a package of those little cocktail crackers and Berta a can of diced olives, so we had "ouvre d'ouvres" and with fruitcake we had quite a nice little Christmas Eve party. And Mary O'Toole stuck her head in with some peanut butter candy and some taffy some of the kids had made. We really enjoyed ourselves.
This morning we were permitted to come to breakfast in robe and pajamas, but since we live across the street, we really couldn't see much point in it. And for breakfast we had - fresh eggs! First time since the States. Our cadre and officers were cooks and waitresses for breakfast, and our CO, Captain Finke, got a "tip" of a cigarette for another egg for someone!
There has been a little boy around here - about ten - who was practically raised by some outfit of boys. He's enjoying a feminine Christmas this year and lots of the girls had fun giving him gifts.
In a little bit we're going up to some of the girls room to help them eat up their packages.
[Author's note: it is not mentioned in the letters, undoubtedly because considered military information, but all American troops in Paris were confined to duty and billets during the time of the Battle of the Bulge, and during the Christmas caroling we were accompanied by Army guards, armed.]
After dinner we opened our "drawn-name" gifts in the Day Room. They weren't supposed to cost over 50 francs and we had a heck of a time finding anything worth buying so cheaply. But mine was very nice. A wonderful bottle of "Evening in Paris" lotion that someone probably took out of one of her own Christmas boxes.
After that two of the girls had "open house" in their room. They live way up under the roof where it's just like an artist's garret and so cute and cozy. They had just heaps of stuff to eat - even coffee. One of the girls is the sweetest little Swedish girl, and she'd gotten the coffee from the States. So we had a wonderful time eating and sitting around talking.
I'm anxious to get some mail from you and hear about Christmas at home.
Olson, Betty J. Magnuson, A WAC's War: Reminiscences. Minnesota Historical Society Manuscripts Collection, 1965.