“Christmas on the Rhine,” Ensign, Dec. 2010, 49–50
It was the night before Christmas in Germany. Scarcely a month before, the armistice that terminated the first World War had been signed. As part of a U.S. Army unit assigned to keep watch on the Rhine river, I was stationed a little distance from the city of Koblenz.
The night was cool and crisp. Snow fell, seemingly sent to put the finishing touch on the first Christmas since the close of a brutal war that for four years had kept the world in turmoil.
After being separated for many years from those who had gone to serve their fatherlands, family members all over Europe were being reunited: sweethearts, mothers, fathers, sons, brothers, sisters, and daughters were once more to feast together. It was a time of great rejoicing.
But for me, a soldier stranded on the Rhine far away from loved ones, it was not so. Feeling dejected, I pulled my khaki overcoat about my throat and strode along a busy city street. My spirits lifted as I beheld the hurry and scurry of shoppers as they filed in and out of tiny shops lining the crooked avenues. I understood German, and every now and then I paused to listen to conversations as shoppers and friends wished one another a Merry Christmas.
I leaned up against a shop front. Two German brothers who appeared to be around ages six and eight had their noses pressed tightly against a frosty window. There were clusters of trinkets, toys, and gingerbread cakes. The boys’ restless feet tapped the frozen ground and their hands beat a cadence on their hips to warm themselves.
“Well! After all,” said the older of the two to the younger, “it’s all right to wish for Santa Claus to bring us some of those things, even though Mama says that he cannot come to our house this year. We’re awfully poor, you know.”
I leaned closer so as to not miss a single word. “I wish I had that and that,” replied the younger boy. “I wish I had a gingerbread man, too.”
At this point, I engaged the little strangers in conversation and learned that their father had just returned from serving in the German army as a soldier at the German front. His pay had stopped, his job was gone, and there was no money in the house for presents. Their mother had made that clear so her four little children (the two boys and their two little sisters) would not be disappointed to awaken on Christmas morning and find that Santa Claus had passed them by.
Soon, they had to hurry home. It was quite a long way, so I offered to accompany them. When we arrived, they pointed out their apartment, which was four flights up in an apartment complex so large it enclosed a solid block.
I made a resolution: Santa Claus would come to their home that year. With the location of the house and the number and ages of the children fixed firmly in my mind, I retraced my steps to the tiny shop where the two nose prints were still visible upon the glass.
The shopkeeper carefully wrapped the trinkets and the gingerbread men into four tiny bundles, which he folded into one larger bundle. After I paid him, he smiled at me as I opened the door and called out gute Nacht! (Good Night!)
Back at military quarters, I confided my secret to a friend, who agreed to accompany me to the family’s home. That night, two khaki-clad soldiers greeted a former enemy in his home. The children’s mother wept tears of joy when she opened the package. In the adjoining room, the four children slumbered in their bed, dreaming of gingerbread men and trinkets in shop windows, expecting to awaken to empty stockings. Meanwhile, three soldiers, former enemies, kindled a friendship.
At midnight, two Yankee soldiers sauntered homeward, their hearts full of Christmas cheer. The bells in the great cathedral pealed forth, “Peace on earth and good will to men.” In my heart echoed the words of the Master: “Inasmuch as ye have done it unto one of the least of these my brethren, ye have done it unto me” (Matthew 25:40). I knew then it was truly greater to give than to receive.