Just Before Christmas – in 1941

Ten days before Christmas in 1941Dad paid $2 for two tons of coal for the furnace. He also spent 19 cents for food – perhaps a bag of his favorite lemon drops – on his way to the coal mine south of the river where the coal was brought out of the tunnel in a small wagon that ran on rails, pulled by a single horse.

It was eight days after the attack on Pearl Harbor and Admiral Husband Edward Kimmel, CIC of the Pacific Fleet still has two days to go before his rank reverts to Rear Admiral and he is replaced by Admiral Nimitz.

As the sun rises in Holland on this day the Dutch learn that their use of gas and electricity is subject to new restrictions.

In Lisbon, Portugal –

…the port was a madhouse of clamoring humanity, with thousands trying to flee Nazism. The last ship of the American Export Line was about to set sail for the United States before the harbor closed. Only Americans and British subjects with passports and transit visas were allowed aboard. No Germans were allowed, even if they opposed Hitler, and all those German citizens in Portugal wanted nothing to do with the Third Reich. The “pitch blackness of Nazified Europe” was what they now faced.

–  December 1941: 31 Days That Changed America and Saved the World, Craig Shirley, 2011

On the 12th, Dad had paid 65 cents for the family Christmas tree and $4.60 on Christmas gifts. He also spent $6.41 on clothing and I suspect some of that ended up being gift-wrapped (socks and underwear for four growing boys and two girls).

This is what our egg crates looked like - when they were filled - they were sold at the town store

When he was coming home with the coal on the 15th, he stopped in at the elevator and picked up ten pounds of oyster shell for 19 cents, which was added to the chicken feed so that the shells on the eggs they laid would stand up to handling and transport.

By the end of that month, they were only getting 25 cents a dozen, but those gathered on the 12th were sold for 33 cents a dozen when he took 16 dozen to the store on the 17th, and was paid $5.58.

A news release dated December 15, 1941 began with these words:

“It has become known that in some areas Jews are transported to somewhere.”

And it continues…

They are permitted to take a little money and about 60 pounds in baggage. The Nazis are proud of their animal protection laws

Jewish women photographed just before they were executed

but the treatment they give to the Jews proves that Jews, as far as the law is concerned, are treated worse than animals.

This unfeeling, sadistic, and cunning treatment against the Jews which has lasted several years fueled by (the intention of full) eradication, is the biggest spot on the honor of Germany. They will never be able to erase these crimes.

But life went on in these United States. As it must.

On December 12 when they were in town to do the Christmas shopping and pick up the tree, Dad had also spent money on the car. He picked up 3 tires for $20.00, 2 inner tubes for $2.00, and spent .99 on “repair parts.” Then they would have been home by dark and after milking the cows, would have listened to the 9 PM news from WHO out of Des Moines when Gabriel Heatter always began his fifteen minute news program with “There’s good news tonight, folks…” even when there wasn’t.

Every American was glued to the radio to hear about events from the “Front.” Edward R. Murrow, Gabriel Heatter and other commentators gave us bitter/sweet news. In my hometown, John Basilone, raising money for the war effort, gave a speech at the local war plant.

He was a native of New Jersey and was awarded the Congressional Medal of Honor for heroism at Guadalcanal. He returned to Camp Pendleton and later shipped out to Iwo Jima where he was killed by an enemy mortar.

Today, Basilone Road leading into Camp Pendleton bears his name.


1941 bitteSo just before Christmas in 1941, things were pretty much as they had always been just before Christmas for at least nineteen hundred years.

Meals were being prepared, nations were at war, children were being cared for, homes were being opened for celebrations featuring family and food, babies were being born, soldiers were shipping out and bad news was flowing in.

And in the middle of it all on December 11, the Los Angeles Times was proud to announce via the front headline headline in the Thursday edition:

City’s Black-out was a Success – As the Southland Plunged into Darkness as Army Reports Presence of Unidentified Aircraft; Searchlights Seen and Gunfire Reported

Oh, it was something.

A gigantic black-out, covering the area from Bakersfield south to San Diego and eastward to Boulder City and Las Vegas, Nev., went into effect…

…and as Los Angeles went dark amidst considerable confusion and uncertainty, Interceptor Command announced: “This is not a practice blackout.”

Merry Christmas….in 1941.


A couple of years ago our grandson was getting acquainted with his great-grandfather’s farm records and going over the penciled entries.

Line by line, day after day, week after week, month after month, year after year.

He spent some time taking it in – city kid that he has always been.

Finally he said quietly, “It doesn’t make much sense that people sometimes refer to farmers as being ‘just dumb farmers.’ ”

No. It doesn’t.

Getting ready for Christmas on the farm and keeping track of the pennies while the world was working on blowing itself up required something of a conscious commitment to daily duties and to the family. It required the willingness and ability to add and subtract – constantly. 

Just before Christmas.

It was what it was – and it is what it is. Whether now or in 1941 or in about 4 AD when young Joseph was trying to get to Bethlehem to pay his taxes.

Just before Christmas.

Memories and the history they are wrapped in go together, bittersweet though it all is. Any effort to separate them won’t change what is so. As I review my own memories of the late ’40s and the ’50s, I am left thinking that they didn’t try to separate the bitter as much as they just didn’t talk about it – perhaps to the point of not acknowledging it? I don’t know.

Reality was a bitter and cold thing, seldom openly acknowledged.

Some of us who grew up during those years carry precious memories that may clang a bit and seem to be in conflict with their wrappings .


Bittersweet is ok.

Bittersweet is characteristic of reality.

Bittersweet is honest.

But that’s ok – bittersweet is where we learn the meaning of grace. At bittersweet we know the joy of strength returning after weakness and there we find the refuge of arms around us when we can no longer stand.

Life is bittersweet precisely when it is lived to the fullest.



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