Among the finest Christmas seasons in America’s long history took place in 1945. We’re constantly bombarded with how special the holidays are, so it’s tough for any one year to stand out as extra special, but 1945 makes the list.
Events across the Adirondacks that year epitomized the nation’s attitude. Surprisingly, it wasn’t all about celebrating, even though the most destructive war in history had just ended a few months earlier. We often mumble mindlessly that we’re proud to be Americans. But the first post-World War II Christmas was the real deal, worthy of the word “pride.”
To set the scene, consider the events that had transpired at that time. After being mired for a decade in the worst financial collapse in our history (the Great Depression), Americans had begun preparing for what seemed inevitable: joining the war in Europe. And then, between the Pearl Harbor attack and the war’s end four years later, hundreds of North Country boys and men were killed in action. Thousands more were injured or missing.
The grief of those losses was shared across the region. Many counties lost hundreds of men, and by the time the holidays arrived that year, thousands of injured, maimed, and shell-shocked warriors had come home. Although they received a hero’s welcome, many suffered long after returning.
Great joy over the war’s end was tempered by the difficulties facing those who suffered most and needed help. And there were many who hadn’t yet returned. Millions were still overseas, and a great number would remain there to aid in reconstruction.
With all that in mind after four years of hellish war, there were more than enough negatives to temper any urge to celebrate or perform good deeds. At that point, no one could say that American hadn’t already done enough. We could have focused on our own nation’s financial and emotional recovery.
But far worse than our own worries were the conditions in Europe and other places where the war had been fought. We’ve recently seen the effects of Katrina and super-storm Sandy: multiply it by hundreds to approach the level of devastation in Europe from four years of bombing. Infrastructure everywhere was destroyed, leaving people starving and freezing in the streets.
The people of the North Country took on all those issues, displaying the true spirit of the season―giving selflessly to help others. It began with a holiday tradition: shopping. Shortages during the war (and for a few years after) affected all sorts of products in America, from sugar to gasoline to car tires to winter clothing.
Despite that fact, stores were deluged with shoppers in Albany, Plattsburgh (sales volume at an all-time high), Ogdensburg (stores were thronged, business was excellent), Watertown, and just about everywhere. It was good for the economy, but they weren’t buying just for family.
Knowing that homecoming soldiers would find slim pickings in stores, a number of organizations were out in strength as early as September and October, buying gifts for homecoming soldiers, or for the soldiers to give to their loved ones. Churches, social groups, businesses, and community leaders were involved. Programs already in place were expanded to meet the tremendous need.
Every community across the region chipped in. Because of the shortages, even small items like socks, shower clogs, playing cards, and candy were selected as gifts. The important thing was to simply give.
Aided by more than a dozen communities, the Essex County Red Cross collected a quantity of cash and nearly 400 gifts, which were taken to Sunmount Veterans’ Hospital in Tupper Lake and dispersed among the grateful soldiers. A large contingent of citizens visited to help lift the men’s spirits.
American Legions in towns across Clinton and Franklin counties did the same, donating to Sunmount and supporting soldiers returning to their hometowns. Other organizations did the same. As if that weren’t enough, the giving extended even further.
Besides addressing the problems at home, many groups, including returning veterans, raised funds and collected critical items like shoes, blankets, and clothing to send overseas. They had seen first-hand the damage to cities and towns across Europe, and now did what they could to alleviate the suffering.
In comparison, so much of today’s giving seems built around gimmickry … momentary excitement over the latest tragedy, which quickly passes in favor of the next event. The Internet, through social media like Facebook and Twitter, helps make it more effective, but it hardly compares to a sustained, hands-on effort like the one America, Canada, and other countries put forth after four years of fighting the worst war in history.
People in the North Country certainly did their part, and I have to admit, reading those stories from sixty-eight years ago surely did warm the cockles.
Photos: Dozens of organizations and businesses published ads in 1945, welcoming the troops home.
This essay first appeared on the New York Almanack on Dec. 24, 2013.