A war reporter's take on Christmas Eve 1945

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December 30, 2006|By Frederick N. Rasmussen | Frederick N. Rasmussen,sun reporter

During World War II, readers looked to "Lee McCardell's Christmas Letter," published on the front page of The Evening Sun on Christmas Eve, which was addressed to his three daughters, Mary Ann, Abby and Tillie, and signed "Dada."

In 1942, McCardell left Baltimore for Europe, where he was assigned as a war correspondent.

The tradition of the front-page letter began at Christmas 1942, when McCardell, away from his family for the first time and homesick, was at Tidworth, England, covering the 29th Infantry Division.

While writing a letter to his family a few days before Christmas, he realized it would not reach Baltimore by mail until probably sometime around New Year's, so he cabled it as a press dispatch to The Evening Sun.

A second letter was sent from London in 1943 and another from Luxembourg during the Battle of the Bulge in 1944.

Christmas 1945 found McCardell back in Baltimore, far from war-ravaged Europe, safely spending the holiday with his family for the first time in three years in their Wilmslow Road home.

In 1945, at the suggestion of The Evening Sun's managing editor, McCardell was asked to do one more letter, this one addressed to the children of war-torn Europe:

"This is the eve of the White Christmas so many American soldiers used to sing about. You must remember the tune of the song. The bands always played it at the Christmas parties the American soldiers used to give for you," McCardell wrote.

Describing Baltimore's Christmas Eve, McCardell wrote, "There is an abundance of all the things most children of the Christian countries of northern Europe used to know at Christmas time -- food, sweets, toys, warmth, music, Christmas greens."

"And tomorrow will be a joyful morning in all those American homes where soldiers and sailors who have been away from their families for the last three or four Christmases are home again."

There was snow in Baltimore that Christmas, and McCardell wrote about the children out sledding, holiday music on the radio, and lighted evergreens decorated on the lawns of suburban homes.

"In almost every house in which children live is a Christmas tree. Big Christmas trees cost $3 in Baltimore this year. That's a lot of money, even in America, for a Christmas tree," he wrote. "Most of the trees will be decorated with strings of colored electric lights. New strings of lights cost $5.95 this year -- a lot of money for lights in America."

McCardell wrote of the abundance of toys in gaily decorated shops. "And there have been tons of candy and cake and nuts and fresh fruits, all the things that make a Christmas feast -- and a stomach ache if you eat too much."

But for children in Europe, it was a different Christmas.

"And while you won't begin to have all the good things we have, it will be a joyful Christmas for you, too -- your first Christmas in peace for six years," he observed. "But very few Americans to whom I have talked call it a `Peace Christmas.' They call it a `Victory Christmas.'"

McCardell speculated on why America didn't put aside more of its abundance that could be sent to relieve those suffering in Europe, and how much the average U.S. citizen grasped the war's enormous destruction.

"No American who stayed at home seems to have the faintest notion of how scarce food and shelter are over there," he wrote. "And, of course, none who stayed at home can be expected to carry in their hearts any haunting memories of hungry, undernourished babies and little children in shattered houses, and cold and damp cellars."

When a delegation of congressmen traveled to Europe to inspect war damage and spent their time being entertained and amused by "people whom they considered more important," McCardell wrote, "they might as well have stayed at home. They came home empty-headed, and like your politicians, most of ours are interested in re-election by the cheapest possible means."

"Real hunger and real want," wrote McCardell, were conditions that most Americans simply didn't understand.

"As a pessimistic sentimentalist and -- I suppose a natural-born sucker -- I'll enjoy my Christmas. I'll enjoy seeing my children, my friends and my friends' children enjoying the day," he wrote. "But I shan't really be very happy over such a one-sided Christmas. I wish it were going to be more of a peace Christmas, less of a victory celebration.

"God grant you a happier New Year.

"Lee McCardell"

McCardell was assistant managing editor of The Evening Sun at his death in 1963.

fred.rasmussen@baltsun.com

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