My father, always one for making memories, got worked up every Christmas. He would make sure we all were home for Christmas Day – and encouraged us to bring along any friends who would otherwise be alone that day. "No one should be alone on Christmas," he would say. My mother always had a few extra wrapped presents on top of the buffet for the unexpected guests – some for men and others for women.
And pretty much every Christmas, my father told us about the Christmas when he last saw his father. Maybe that was why it was so important for him to have all seven of his children home for Christmas. Here is the story as my nonna (grandmother) remembered it.
It was Christmas Eve, 1943. The cookies were done. Rosie, her second daughter, was arranging them on the platter: buccellati, biscotti, twice-baked – all the traditional Italian cookies. After all, what was Christmas without traditions? And now the ravioli filling was done; tomorrow she would make the dough. Wiping her hands on the tea towel, she poured a cup of coffee and sat down at the little enamel-topped table. Christmas carols were coming over the radio. Bing Crosby’s latest hit, “I’ll be home for Christmas” had just finished. She reached over and picked up a letter that was standing behind the salt and pepper shakers.
Dear Pop and Mom,
Hope this letter finds all of you well. Basic training is about what we expected. We have long hikes and work pretty hard. Of course you should see the barracks, everything is neat and tidy. The sergeant makes sure that our bunks are tucked in tight every morning and too bad for you if you fail your personal inspection. We also take written tests and I have done very well. I get 90s in nearly all the tests, so you should be proud of me.
Now here is the bad news. It seems that I won’t be home for Christmas this year. The sergeant put up the list of those who got leave and my name wasn’t on it. I was disappointed and I know you will be too. He said that this list was final and no changes were going to be made. I am so sorry. I know how much you were looking forward to having me home once again before we shipped out overseas.
Please give my sisters my love, and lots of love also to you, my dear parents.
Your son, Jimmy
And that was that. He wasn’t coming. Last year he had come home so proudly in his ROTC uniform. She also remembered how after Pearl Harbor he had been so excited when he and some fellow students had witnessed war being declared in the Senate. He was young – how could he know all the heartbreak that was ahead of him? Wiping a tear out of her eye, she got up and rinsed the coffee cup in the sink and walked into the dining room.
Rosie had already set the table. There were the places for all of the family: her oldest, Josie, with her Frank and their children, Rosie, and her and Edward. The missing place couldn’t be seen at first; only in her heart was there a glaring hole at the table.
In the living room the tree was decorated with the bubble lights they had gotten a few years before. And over in the corner on a table was the manger scene, complete with its long wooden arm ending in a wooden star with a blue light bulb. All the figures were unwrapped and in place: Joseph and Mary, the shepherds, kings, lambs, and oxen. The only piece missing was the baby – which brought another tear to her eye.
She remembered a Christmas a long time ago – yet Jimmy was still just a boy, so it couldn’t have been so long ago. That Christmas he had helped put the figures in the manger scene for the first time. When they were finished he had turned to her and asked, “Where is the baby?” He must have been only four or five years old then. “Where is the baby?” he demanded.
“Oh, Jamie,” she responded, calling him by her special name for him, “don’t you remember? The baby comes each Christmas Eve. Would you like to be the one who puts the baby in the manger scene this Christmas Eve?” And so a tradition had started. Every Christmas since then, Jimmy had placed the Christ Child in the manger between Joseph and Mary. Who was going to do it this year?
Again she sighed and went back to the kitchen to start a small supper. Life went on and they had to eat. Edward was sitting in the living room looking at the newspaper. Rosie was upstairs finishing her packages. She started heating up some soup. That would be good with some bread – after all, tomorrow they would really feast.
Then someone was knocking at the door. Surely Edward would get it. But no, he was into his newspaper. Again she wiped her hands on the tea towel and went to the door. Knock, knock. “Patience,” she said to herself. Who could be in such a rush? She opened the door. “Mom! Merry Christmas!” There was her son, Jimmy! But what was he doing there in uniform? He picked her up and hugged her and kissed her again and again.
“Where’s Pop?” Edward by now had come to see what all the commotion was in the hall. “Pop!” Jimmy hugged his father like there was no tomorrow. Rosie came down the stairs. Ever practical, she said, “What are you doing here?”
“At least let me come in and get warm. Then I’ll tell you the whole story.”
They all went into the kitchen where the coffee was heated up again. Jimmy told them that yesterday after duty he had been sitting in the barracks watching the other fellows packing up to go home. He was just sitting there with nothing to do – no duties on Christmas Eve or Christmas Day. He was just miserable. So he had said to himself, “Why not try it?” He put on his best uniform and packed a small bag and just walked off the base to the train station. He knew that any soldier in uniform traveled free because of the war. He might not have a seat, but he could ride the rails.
“Pop, you wouldn’t believe how crowded the trains were. We were sitting on the floor and some were even in between the cars. Of course there was no food to buy, and no time to get off at the stations. Well, we fellows started singing Christmas carols and what do you know. First one guy shared a candy bar, then out came some cookies, and finally someone had a bottle that we passed around. I tell you, it was amazing. We sang and talked until the train pulled into Penn Station. The conductor called out ‘Merry Christmas’ to us as we left the platform. I grabbed the first bus I could and here I am. Merry Christmas!”
“But that means you’re AWOL,” said Rosie. “What are you going to do? Aren’t you going to get into trouble?”
“Don’t worry, I’ll leave tomorrow and sneak back on base and hopefully it will be okay. You know we are shipping out in a few weeks, and I didn’t know when I would get a chance to see you again.”
The soup was ready. The family sat down around the small kitchen table and said a more thankful grace than would have otherwise been said. Later that night, as they were sitting in the living room, Jimmy said, “Hey, Mom, where’s the baby?”
Between laughs and tears, she brought the Christ Child out from where she had hidden him and gave him to Jimmy. “Here, Jamie,” she said as she handed him the little painted plaster manger with the baby in it. He held it in his hands for a few moments before putting it in the manger scene. Now Christmas was complete in every way. The Christ Child was there with all of them, together one more time before the tides of war would tear them apart.
Later in the evening Jimmy phoned his older sister, Josie, and told her that he was home. She reacted just as Rosie had – she was worried that he would get into trouble. But Jimmy assured her that he would be all right. When Josie came over Christmas Day there were hugs and kisses all over again. The children were running around, presents were being opened. But everyone knew that the best present was that they were all together.
After a big Christmas dinner it was time for Frank to drive Jimmy to the train station. Before leaving Jimmy turned to his parents and said, “Bless me.” This was a traditional way for Italian children to take leave of their parents. Jimmy hadn’t asked this of his parents in years. “God bless you and care for you,” she said. Edward added his own blessing.
One last round of hugs and kisses and then out the door to the waiting car. She would never have them together again. That was the last time Jimmy was to see his father. He was sent overseas and in the next year his father had a sudden heart attack and died.
When Jimmy got back to base it became apparent he wasn’t the only fellow to sneak off for Christmas, and surprisingly there were no repercussions. He and many others shipped off for the Philippines first thing in the New Year. Maybe those in charge thought that was punishment enough – if they had been put in jail for going AWOL they would have missed their ship and the brutal warfare that awaited them.
To the end of his life, my father played “I’ll be home for Christmas” each year in memory of the time he disobeyed an order and never regretted it.