`And a Merry Christmas - Dada'

WAY BACK WHEN

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December 24, 2005|By FREDERICK N. RASMUSSEN | FREDERICK N. RASMUSSEN,SUN REPORTER

At Christmas 1944, World War II Sunpapers correspondent Lee McCardell found himself reporting the largest land battle of World War II, when 25 German divisions attacked six U.S. divisions.

The furious battle for the Ardennes, the last great German thrust against Allied forces, exploded along the Belgian border early in December and was fought during one of the worst European winters in memory.

On Dec. 23, McCardell's thoughts traveled some 3,000 miles across the Atlantic to his family on Wilmslow Road in Roland Park, warm and safe from the horrors of war.

It had been three years since he had left Baltimore, and as the war ground on, he was assigned to cover Gen. George S. Patton's 3rd Army.

He wasn't alone, as battle-weary troops mired in snow and mud, joined by others struggling for life in field hospitals or recovering from wounds, dreamed of long-ago Christmases and peaceful faraway homes. They dreamed of parents, brothers, sisters, girlfriends and friends they hadn't seen in years.

"Lee McCardell's Christmas Letter," published on the front page of The Sun on Christmas Eve, was addressed to his three daughters, Mary Ann, Abby and Tillie, who was but a year old when he went abroad.

McCardell's letter resonated with readers and was a momentary respite from the daily misery of war.

"The real name of ... where I am is Luxembourg, but on Christmas Eve I'd rather call it `Toyland.' With its funny little houses, its sharply pointed twin church steeples and its tiny trolley cars no bigger than Gleason and Luits's delivery truck, Luxembourg really looks just like Toyland," he wrote.

Built on steep hills dotted by ancient castles overlooking a river valley, the city reminded McCardell of Ellicott City perched above the Patapsco River.

"Yesterday it snowed," he wrote, "and now Luxembourg, with its funny houses, sharp church steeples, ruined castles and high arched bridges looks exactly like a little town in a Christmas garden under a Christmas tree."

The city, he reported, looked as though it was covered with "dabs of white cotton" and "powdered with the same kind of sparkling, artificial snow we used to buy at the 10-cent store for our Christmas garden."

The diminutive trolleys sparked nostalgic memories of a little trolley that had operated under McCardell's grandfather's Christmas tree.

"Ours was red and yellow, and those of Luxembourg are green and yellow," he wrote.

McCardell recalled the time he took his children to a Lexington Street movie theater to see Victor Herbert's Babes in Toyland and how they were frightened by some robot soldiers.

"Well, on this Christmas Eve, some real robot soldiers of Hitler, grown men old enough to know better, are frightening the people of Toyland - I mean Luxembourg. They are only 20 miles away, and the people of Luxembourg don't like it all," he wrote.

He reassures them that American soldiers are "fighting hard to keep them out of Toyland," and that this is no way to spend Christmas Eve.

He reported that there were even a few signs of Christmas evident on the battlefield, such as a Christmas tree without ornaments, lights or tinsel that had been set up by soldiers on their cannon aimed toward Germany.

"There will be no Christmas candles, no Christmas music, except perhaps a little that a few soldiers may hear on the radio."

He was uneasy that he was in a hotel in Luxembourg with a bed, clean sheets and plenty of food while soldiers were out in the cold seeking what little comfort, if any, the could find in wet foxholes.

"In a world of miserable men this Christmas Eve, who am I that I should be comforted by the knowledge that my three children will sleep this night in warm, dry beds; that you'll wake tomorrow morning, bright-eyed in a cheerful house with a roof and all its doors and windows.

"So many, many other children of Europe will sleep tonight in houses without roofs, without doors or windows. Many will sleep on straw in cold, damp cellars where Santa Claus, even if he should extend his continental activities from St. Nicholas Day through tonight, will never find them," he wrote.

McCardell wrote that it would be the "happiest" but not the "merriest" Christmas he had spent because "God, by being so very good to you, is being good to me. ... At least there is peace this Christmas Eve in your world of men of good will."

"And a Merry Christmas --Dada."

McCardell, who survived the war, returned to Baltimore and was assistant managing editor of The Evening Sun at his death in 1963.

fred.rasmussen@baltsun.com

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