The vacant chairs of Christmas
On Dec. 24, 1944, the United States was just beginning its fourth year of World War II. Nearly all of the headlines in the Grand Forks Herald that day were dedicated to coverage of warrelated stories.
Although the Allies were making headway, the outcome still was uncertain. After all, German forces — whom many had considered ready to surrender — had just the week before launched a brutal and deadly offensive campaign in eastern Belgium and France. Later, it would become known as the Battle of the Bulge.
Whereas many had hoped American servicemen would be home by Christmas 1944, that dream didn’t materialize. It would take another five months to finish the war in Germany, another eight months in Japan.
Below is the editorial from that day’s Herald — Dec. 24, 1944 — placed under the Herald’s masthead on the opinion page and therefore presumably written by a Herald executive. The editor and publisher at the time was M.M. Oppegard, who was with this newspaper from 1929 to 1969 and is one of three former Herald publishers — along with George Winship and Mike Jacobs — to be inducted into the North Dakota Newspaper Association Hall of Fame.
This is another Christmas of vacant chairs in thousands of American homes — the fourth Christmas since the cruel tragedy of Pearl Harbor plunged us into the ugly whirlwind of war. In millions of windows of our land, silhouetted against the glow of lighted Christmas trees, blue stars shine as a symbol of those fighting our fight on distant battlefields.
In other thousands of windows gleam the stars of gold in tribute to those valiant sons and daughters whose chairs will be forever vacant, for their spirits soar with the mounting army of our hero dead.
Thus while millions join in festive observance of this holiday season, other millions in broken family circles will find the day of Christmas crowded with memories of other years, before the lustful finger of war pointed out a loved one.
Christmas belongs to the children — happy, carefree children, knowing nothing of life’s complexities, its burdens and its sorrows. It belongs to the children of today even as a few short years ago — so very short, it seems — it belonged to the boy whose courage and bravery and daring on war’s bloody stage now proclaim him of man’s stature.
But it is still his day, of that we may be sure, for we know of what he thinks today and what his thoughts will be tomorrow.
Surely, in every heart, in every memory, of all those boys and girls scattered the world over in strange lands, the first thought will be of loved ones, and home and other Christmas seasons. To him and to her again will come on this Christmas Eve the many happier hours of younger years — the eager expectancy, the thrill of realization, the unalloyed joy of just being alive with loved ones.
In those homes where Christmas Eve is the time of gift-giving as well as in other homes where Christmas morn is the eventful time, the spirit of those absent loved ones, living and dead, will move again in happy memory.
Far away in some protective foxhole, under a tent or in a barracks, the boy whose happy shout rang through the house in other years will dream again of those joyous hours. He will live once more through the long hours of the night before Christmas — the night of fitful sleep, of early morning pleading with Mom and Dad to “get up” so he and sister could find the presents they so desired down under the Christmas tree. Perhaps it was a sled, a rocking horse, a pair of skates, mechanical building blocks, a sleeping doll that really needed diapers, a pair of bright new shoes, all with a bag of candy and apples and nuts.
That was Christmas Eve or Christmas morning to them then, just as it will be tonight and tomorrow to millions of other little children too young to go to war, too young even to know that war is not glamorous.
And that is the way it should be. That is the way our boys and girls of yesterday would want it to be. That is one of the reasons they are doing the job they are doing. It’s an ugly job that must be done. They want to know our children — their children — of today and tomorrow will always have that kind of a Christmas, just as they seek to keep intact the other vital parts of our American way of life.
It is for us here at home to see that we keep our part of the compact — that we do not relax in the job assigned to us any more than they can relax in the vastly sacrificial task that is their all-important duty. By that united effort, by an honest and sincere determination to do our duty in every way, we can have a worthy part in keeping alive forever this season for the little boys and girls of America, perpetuating the words of Phoebe Cary:
“For little children everywhere, a joyous season still we make; we bring our precious gifts to them, even for the dead child Jesus’ sake.”