Christmas Eve

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December 24, 1917

I woke up this morning to a fresh blanket of snow outside my bedroom window.  I’m staying at a farmhouse just outside the village of Rimaucourt, about one hundred miles south west of the city of Nancy. Captain Smithwick summoned me to take part in a small gathering of operatives who are in the region for the purpose of comparing notes, giving mutual encouragement, and also to brush up on the techniques of spy craft, including message coding and self defence tactics. 

The snow reminds me of Boston, where it is always white in December. As the war drags on, I find myself missing my home there more desperately. A dull ache has grown into an acute pain. The German’s call it Heimweh, translated literally as “home pain”. 

Christmas Eve is considered the Holiest night of the year, and I admit, it did succeed in boosting my spirits. A newly arrived American Regiment, the Iowa National Guard’s 168th Infantry Regiment, is staying near the village. Three hundred fresh faced soldiers marched here from Vaucouleurs two days ago having been deposited there to begin their training in trench warfare. This fine group of men offered to host a joint French and American Christmas mass with a catered meal afterwards. I think everyone from the village was in attendance at an old, stone cathedral, including at least a hundred children. Needless to say the church was overflowing. I don’t know how they were able to put together such a fine schedule on such short notice.

The chancel was decorated by the regimental colors flanked by tricolor French flags. The program began with a group of French violinists assembling at the front to accompany the hearty singing that took came next. 

One of the soldiers approached me, and speaking in faltering French said, “Mademoiselle, you will sing?” 

I took pity on him and replied in English, maintaining a French accent. “It would be my pleasure.”

For thirty minutes, I lost myself as I sang French Christmas hymns followed by traditional Christmas songs in English. “Oh Holy Night, the stars are brightly shining…” For this half-hour I was transported to otherworldly peace, the horrors of the war momentarily forgotten. French and English voices reverberating wonderfully throughout the ancient building, and I found myself wishing that I could have somehow recorded it using one of those sound horns to play back later on a wax cylinder at a time when I needed my spirits bolstered. 

The scripture reading was given in both languages and then a homily given by the American Chaplain, which was translated into French by Father Lavigne from the local parish. 

“Immanuel-God with us.”

I looked around the room at the joyful mixture of English and French men and women, most of them strangers to each other, worshiping together in delightful and awkward harmony. 

God is with us. 

Later, on a large meal, one might even call it a banquet, was organized in the church dining hall. Turkey, carrots, mashed potatoes, bread pudding, nuts, figs and coffee, the abundance was a true miracle, delivered by a Corporal Marvin Standish from Des Moines Iowa who co-owns a large restaurant with his father. I have no idea how he gathered all this food together, but we were all extremely grateful. 

Four American soldiers, dressed up as Santa Claus distributed gifts of balloons, toy horns and dolls. 

“The regiment brought the gifts with them in anticipation of spending Christmas here,” one of the soldiers told me proudly. “Children everywhere are in need of gifts from Santa Claus.”

“Oui, le Père Noèl,” I returned. “He’s very popular in France too.”

After the festivities, as the first snowflakes began drifting down from the starless sky, I turned my face upwards and said a tear-filled supplication for Daniel. 

“Wherever he may be tonight, dear Lord, let him be warm and well fed, in the company of friends, and in the presence of the same Prince of Peace that so eloquently graced our little village tonight, here in the heart of France.”

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