“Christmas tree a la mode.” That’s how my grandfather, Bill Mackowski, described it to his wife, LaVerne, back in December of 1944.
Bill was stationed in Belgium, part of the 330th infantry regiment of the 83rd Army Division. The world was embroiled in war and, at that time, the Battle of the Bulge had been raging for a week.
But the night of December 24 was quiet along the front. The men were sitting around, talking about their girls back home, missing their families. “I just kept thinking how foolish most of them were not be married or not to have someone like you,” Bill had written to Verne just a few days earlier, after a similar bout of homesickness had befallen him and his buddies.
It was Bill’s third Christmas in the army. In December of 1942, when he was still learning to cope with the homesickness, he treasured the cards and packages sent to him. “Funny, but before I always just looked to see who sent the cards [and] the pictures, but now I read everyword & feel good that people do remember me,” he wrote.
He worried that people back home would think less of him because he wasn’t able to reciprocate. “Gosh, I haven’t sent a card or bought a thing for Christmas,” he admitted. “I hope everyone understands & believes I haven’t turned into a Scrooge.”
By 1944, with the war still on, men had learned to cope with the homesickness a little better even if they didn’t like it at all. That December twenty-fourth evening in Belgium, with the wistful Christmas spirit sunk deep in their bones, my grandfather and his buddies decided to find a way to celebrate on their own.
“You might think you’re the only ones with a Christmas tree, but you can’t take Christmas away from us, thanks to the Air Corps & G. I. ingenuity,” Bill wrote to Verne. “We decided we’d have a tree in our tent or bust, so we did.”
The Air Corps provided the inspiration. “It seems they drop long strips of tinfoil to offset enemy radar, so after chasing bunches of it we got our tinsel. We found by running our finger nails down it, it curled like those icicles we use to buy,” he wrote.
Next, they had to procure a tree. “It was kinda nasty to steal a little evergreen tree from around behind the church, but it was just the right size & shape,” he wrote. “We found a bush with red berries on it & made loops out of the tin foil to hang them up with.
“We cut a star out of the bottom of a tin can & with a piece of dental floss & a band aid we hung it from the slope of the tent down to the top of the tree.
“We made a white base out of toilet paper and then ripped open a couple of our first aid bandages & made snow out of the cotton and also found it would stick on the side of the tent. So we formed the letters Merry Xmas above the tree & dobs of cotton around it like a snow storm.”
One of the officers asked a local woman for some colored yarn—red, orange, green, yellow, and blue—which they strung on the tree.
“Then off of some of the tomato cans we cut out the red circles & hung them on,” Bill wrote. “Then to top it off, we all put our wives, girls & babies pictures on it. The only trouble was that brought on a few drops of water to the eyes.”
The mood turned lighter when a chaplain broke out a book of hymns. “We sat around and sang Christmas Carols,” Bill wrote. “We had all the nice carols & really sang them out.”
It reminded him of the carols sung that afternoon in the nearby town’s little church when he visited. The church, he wrote, “was decorated real nice & the choir sang carols & really put us in the mood. They did kinda choke me up when they tossed in an ‘Ave Maria,’ but it always did get me a little, it’s super pretty. Oh me, here I go getting sentimental again.”
As the twenty-fourth of December turned into the twenty-fifth, the men in Bill’s company huddled around a radio to listen to Midnight Mass. “I guess all in all,” wrote Bill, “we’re pretty lucky after all. There are a lot of guys with a lot less. Tomorrow we’re going into town again for church, so we’ll have a good day in spite of the Germans.”
But it was the tree, decorated with Air Corps tinsel and tomato-can circles that meant the most to those men that Christmas. “Now that it’s finished,” Bill wrote, “we all wonder if it helped our morale or made us twice as homesick.
“But it really looks nice and Christmassy as any I’ve seen. I’m telling you, we all just sit around & stare at it & never say a word for minutes at a time.”
The moon rose high that night. It was, Bill wrote, as bright as could be. “[A]nd in the west…was a star that shone the brightest I’ve ever seen,” he added. “We could almost see the points & just when I was thinking it, one of the officers said aloud, ‘I hope my wife is looking at that tonight.’”
This holiday season, please remember our men and women in uniform, especially those separated from their families. May they find Christmas tree a la mode of their own.