By Tim Walch
“I’ll be home for Christmas.” It is a song and a sentiment that recalls a time when the greatest generation returned to those they loved. The war in Europe had ended in May and the war in the Pacific was over in September. Christmas in 1945 would be special.
Getting home by Dec. 25 was the prize that burned in the hearts of millions of military personnel. Many would not make it: some had made the ultimate sacrifice and others were injured and in military hospitals. However, the most common reason for not getting home was the simple fact that all those in the service couldn’t find a way to get there for the big day, even those who were stateside.
It wasn’t for a lack of trying. As early as September, the military launched “Operation Magic Carpet” to bring as many troops home as soon as possible. As the holidays grew closer, “Operation Santa Claus” added to the
number of men and women on the move.
Here in Iowa, all was in readiness. “Peace has come and a lot of boys will be home for Christmas,” wrote one contributor to The Catholic Messenger, “and even those who don’t come home at least won’t have their Christmas in a fox hole!” It was the best Christmas present that anyone could imagine.
The Dec. 20 issue of the Messenger reflected the anticipation. To be sure, the paper had always celebrated the birth of Christ with lavish front pages. However, 1945 was special because there would be “peace on earth and good will to all” for the first time in six years.
That was the theme of the Christmas greetings shared by Bishop Ralph Hayes. “A weight has been lifted from the hearts and souls of American mothers,” he wrote, “sons are returning to the sanctuary of home.” Indeed, but the task ahead could not be ignored. The world had been torn asunder and Catholics of good will were being called to work for peace and pray for peace in the New Year.
In addition to the call from Bishop Hayes, the Messenger also reported plans for Christmas dances, parties and other celebrations. So much gratitude came with a need for additional liturgies. Expanded Mass schedules to accommodate returning veterans and their families on Christmas Day populated the paper.
Particularly popular was the Midnight Mass at St. Joseph Parish in Hills. Although common in current times, midnight liturgies were the exception in 1945. The Mass at St. Joseph was so popular that the pastor issued tickets so that parishioners could find places in the pews!
As if to sum up the spirit of thanksgiving of the season, the Messenger’s editors called for all Catholics to cherish the service of those who had returned and wished them well in their future endeavors. The editors also acknowledged that many young Iowans were still in uniform and should be kept in readers’ prayers.
More somber was the obligation to remember those who had given their lives, for this country. The editors asked that Catholics dedicate their Christmas communion to the eternal salvation of those not present that Christmas Day.
Finally, the Messenger stressed that readers should not forget the families of the fallen. “On this first Christmas day of peace, even more than on the day that brought the fateful telegram to them they will realize the full extent of their loss and the weight of the loneliness and separation which it imposes.” The editors prayed that God would be with those families and fill the vacancy in their hearts and homes.
Most of the service men and women who returned home for Christmas in 1945 are no longer with us. In fact, fewer than 3 % of those who served in World War II are still alive today, according to estimates. Thanks to blessed memory, these patriots have not been forgotten. They still have a place in our hearts at Christmas.
(Timothy Walch is a lay director of St. Thomas More Parish in Coralville and a member of the Board of Directors of The Catholic Messenger.)