Christmas of 1918 was irretrievably intertwined with the final days and aftermath of World War I. The Armistice had been signed a little over a month before. American troops were just beginning to trickle back to the United States from France. Casualty lists were still a daily staple in the Bangor Daily News in the days leading up to the Christmas holiday.
For some families the approaching Christmas season brought only anxiety about their soldier sons.
Corp. Henry Allen Alward of Bangor and Pvt. Austin W. Collins of Winterport, for example, were among the names on the “Wounded (Degree Undetermined)” list. And the family of Pvt. Leslie N. Stairs of Stillwater received the terrible news that their son had died of his wounds.
Mr. and Mrs. James Rogers of Pleasant Street had cause for cautious rejoicing — their son Sgt. J. William Rogers, suffering a serious head wound, had returned to a United States military hospital.
As unsettling as the war news continued to be, local merchants had high hopes for the mercantile aspects of the Christmas season.
Benson’s, a store in downtown Bangor, led its advertisement with this message: “Today the world cries out more loudly for the Christmas spirit than ever before. With the affairs of the universe clouded by the awful ravaging of war, Yuletide today comes refreshing and clean, strengthened by intense patriotic feeling. We may sacrifice non-essentials, but we can ill-afford to neglect a cherished institution so large a part of our spiritual lives.”
The ad went on to list gift suggestions, including “a smart made veil, a handsome fur set and a good silk umbrella.”
The advertisement for Freese’s department store told readers, “Every department now radiates the spirit of Christmas.” A prominent feature of its ad was the Red Cross symbol encircled by a holiday wreath, with this message: “The best Christmas present is a year’s membership in the American Red Cross. Join now!”
Yet even with the weight of war still upon the city, the spirit of caring for those in need was alive and well just as it always had been in Bangor.
The Salvation Army was making its annual preparations to provide Christmas dinners to those in need. Nearly 1,000 food baskets would be needed to satisfy demand.
Each family was given one-half peck potatoes and one-half peck apples, and onions, turnips, cranberries, canned corn, baked beans, a can of milk, tomato soup, jelly, sugar, tea, coffee, a 5-pound sack of flour, crackers, a mince pie, a large loaf of bread, celery and a chicken — two chickens if the family was large.
The Salvation Army also planned an entertainment for 150 of the poorest children in the city who would enjoy a visit from Santa Claus and be given gifts of fruit, candy and clothing “to delight the hearts of the youngsters.”
The Children’s Home put out a call for the donation of sleds. Bangor residents were urged to check attics and sheds for sleds that were no longer used and to donate them to the children — girls ranging in age from 3 to 14, and boys from 8 to 11 — living at the home.
Bangor housewives may have heaved a sigh of relief when they read this headline: “Food Administration Has Cancelled Milling Regulations, Including Fair Price Schedules — Immediate Rise in Price of Mill Feeds Indicate Fall of Flour Prices.” It must have been equivalent to “sugar plums dancing in their heads” to know that the cost of baking a cake was soon to become much more affordable.
Although the public face of the Christmas season was marred by the aftermath of war, the Bangor Band played its usual Christmas pops concert at City Hall. The program featured works by French composers Massenet, Saint-Saens and Debussy.
But despite the anxiety local residents felt during that difficult Christmas season, they must have rejoiced and looked to the future when they read this letter, dated Nov. 24, 1918, written by Corp. Francis J. Coughlin, 101st Trench Mortar Battery (26th Div.) American Expeditionary Forces, the son of Mrs. Mary Coughlin of 9 Parker St., Brewer:
“Dearest, Mother, Only a note tonight so that you will know that I’m fine. Just received your last box and everything in it was O.K. The cake and candy were just as fresh and tasted fine. It didn’t last but a short time as a fellow ‘over here’ has so many chums to treat.
“Mother, I am in hopes we will be sailing for home very soon and a day seems like a month now to all of us.
“Just came down from Verdun a few days ago and we were waiting in a town named Tilmont for further orders, from where we expect to go to a seaport and get the transport. We are about 5 miles from Baleduc, which is a fairly good-sized town. If you look on the map you can see just where I am staying.
Verdun is a large city, but it is all shattered now. Nothing left but part of the big cathedral. I was in the battle of Chateau-Thierry in July. That was also a large city before the fighting began. The Germans were just retreating over the hill when we entered the city and the civilians were somewhat delighted at the sight of the Yanks. I also was in the battle of St. Mihiel on Sept. 12. Our barrage started at 1 a.m. on Sept. 13 and lasted until 7 a.m. the next day. Then the infantry went over the top and went through the Boche (the Germans) without any resistance whatever.
“I was sure born under a lucky star, after being where I have and coming out alive. Several times I have almost been hit by shrapnel, also caught in many (poisonous mustard) gas attacks, but came out without a scratch. Hoping this finds you O.K. Lots of love.”
And there it was, the love of mother and son tangible on the page, the very embodiment of the Christmas season.