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Wartime Christmas
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My grandmother Marie was a young girl during World War II in German-occupied France. The household consisted of her mother and father and a sister just a few years younger than she. Grandma Marie told me that times were hard then. They never had enough food, never enough heat in the winter months, and in general, never enough of anything. But her family tried to make the best of things.

One day during the war years, as Christmas approached, my grandmother and her sister decided to get a small Christmas tree, a family tradition for years. However, under German occupation, things had changed. The Germans said that things such as Christmas trees were verboten (forbidden). There were to be no exceptions. But young people, like my Grandma and her sister, often don’t think or worry about the consequences of their actions. So without their parents’ permission, the girls went to a nearby forest and cut down a small Christmas tree. They planned to hide the Christmas tree in their bedroom closet, decorate it with the decorations they still owned, and bring it out Christmas morning. If they enjoyed the tree for only that short period, the girls reasoned, their parents’ probably would not be too harsh on them.

But children talk, and the occupying army was very good at using people to inform on their neighbors by rewarding them with extra food or other favors when they acted as spies. And someone informed on my grandmother and her sister.

My grandmother told me how frightened the family was when the German patrol knocked on the door. A big, mean-looking German officer told the family in broken French that they were going to search the house because they’d heard that the family had a Christmas tree. “As you know,” the officer boomed, “Christmas trees are verboten.”

“We have no Christmas tree,” my great-grandfather protested.

“We shall see,” said the officer, pushing my great-grandfather aside and ordering his soldiers to search the little farmhouse.

My grandmother Marie and her sister were terrified. They knew their tree would be discovered and had no idea what the Germans would do.

My great-grandfather and great-grandmother were shocked when the little Christmas tree was pulled out of the closet.

“No Christmas tree, huh?” the German officer smirked.

“I did not know!” my great-grandfather cried. My poor great-grandfather broke down in tears.

“It is our fault, Papa,” my grandmother said. Turning to the German officer, she said, “Please, our parents did not know! It is my fault. I am to blame!”

Slapped the Girls Across Their Faces

My great-grandfather grabbed my grandmother and her sister and shook them. Then to make an impression upon the officer, he slapped the girls across their faces—something he had never done before.

“Papa’s harsh actions against us probably saved our whole family from further punishment,” my grandmother told me. “The patrol let us off with a warning.”

Later, after the German patrol had left, my poor great-grandfather broke down in tears and apologized for slapping my grandmother and her sister. “But you must know,” he scolded them, “as much as you wanted a Christmas tree, you must not disobey what your mother and I tell you girls. This is wartime; we must obey the laws of the Germans, even if we disagree with them. Your Christmas tree could have gotten us all in very, very serious trouble.”

My grandmother Marie and her sister bowed their heads and said, “Yes, Papa. We are very sorry. It will not happen again.” So the sisters were resigned to a Christmas without a tree. But then, even during bad times, even during wartime, there are still moments of goodness and rays of hope.

Christmas morning found the little French family looking out the window at the falling snowflakes. It was very Christmaslike. But there was no tree.

Then there came a knock on the door. Always fearful of knocks on the door during the war, my great-grandfather went to the door with a great deal of hesitation. As he opened the door, he could make out through the falling snow the gray uniforms of two German soldiers running away from the house. And there on the doorstep was a small Christmas tree, decorated with bright little ribbons. And attached was a note in French that read, “Merry Christmas. We are Christians too. Please enjoy your tree on this very special day. And when the day is over, please get rid of it for the safety of all us.”

The two German soldiers had probably been on the patrol that confiscated the first Christmas tree. And they jeopardized their own safety to bring the girls another tree.

My grandma recalls, “We didn’t have much that Christmas. But when those soldiers risked everything to bring us that tree, it truly made it one of the most wonderful Christmases I have ever had!”

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By Debbie Kyle as told to Tom R. Kovach. Reprinted with persmission from Signs of the Times, December 2006. Copyright © 2007 by GraceNotes. All rights reserved. Use of this material is subject to usage guidelines.

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