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History's Headlines: Christmas in a world at war

One hundred years ago, December 25, 1917, the Lehigh Valley awoke to a white Christmas. But it was one different then it had ever known before, for at that moment millions of American men and women were joining Europe in a world war.

Since April, when President Woodrow Wilson had declared it was necessary to “make the world safe for democracy,” the country had rallied behind its leader to tackle “the beast of Berlin.” Since 1914 the sheet music racks on the parlor’s pianos had gone from “I Didn’t Raise My Boy To Be A Soldier” to 1917’s hit “Over There.” The newspaper headlines showed that the war was not stopping for the birthday of the Prince of Peace.  Germany and its ally Austria-Hungry were trying to decide how to take advantage of the collapse of Russia into revolution by Lenin’s Bolsheviks. It would be the early 21st century before it was known that the Communist coup d’état against Russia’s fledgling democratic leaders had been largely funded by German gold.

The big news was from the Middle East where the British Army had taken Jerusalem from Germany’s Ottoman ally on December 11, ending centuries of Turkish rule.

“Jerusalem will never be Turkish again,” declared British prime minister, David Lloyd George.

But the biggest headlines in local papers had to do with American troops. “FINEST TURKEYS PROCURABLE SENT TO PERSHING’S ARMY FOR CHRISTMAS; TRIMMINGS TOO,” read the biggest headline in December 24, 1917 editions. “Hundreds of thousands of pounds of the best turkeys to be brought in the eastern markets have been sent across the Atlantic not only for General Pershing’s men but for the bluejackets of the navy patrolling foreign waters,” the front-page story in the Morning Call said. The dinner would consist of turkey, cranberry sauce, sweet potatoes and mince pie.

The fruit cake sent by Aunt Betty from Leighton might take a little longer to get to “doughboys” than the turkey. “Parcels were arriving but only after they had been checked for tampering by the enemy,” the press noted. And Army tailors were complaining that 1917 soldiers were just a lot bigger than their family members who donned the Union blue in 1861. “ABUNDANCE OF GIANTS IN NEW ARMY HELPED TO CREATE THE CRISIS IN CLOTHING SUPPLY,” read the headline on that story.

Other stories making headlines were the plans for the government to take over the railroad system for the duration of the war, the success of the Lincoln Highway in carrying war supplies across country and the “absence of gaiety,” on Broadway since the war began. Local headlines noted the election of Col. (not yet General) Harry C. Trexler as head of Allentown’s Chamber of Commerce and that the daily circulation for books from the Allentown Public Library in November had reached 437, a record for the year.

Some folks were lucky to have their men in uniform at home. Lieutenant Stanley A. Wuchter was going to be spending his Christmas furlough with his parents Mr. and Mrs. James Wuchter at 103 Madison Street in Allentown. Others not in a war zone but still performing vital service to the military like Roger S. Erdman, chief of the Personal Bureau at the Panama Canal Zone and his wife, were spending the holiday with his parents, Mr. and Mrs. John Erdman of 30 N. Jefferson St. in the Queen City.

But some soldiers like those in training to be Army ambulance drivers at Camp Crane at Allentown Fairgrounds could not get away. For them a military ball of sorts on Christmas Eve was put on at the new recreation hall. Festooned with flags of the Allied nations and large Christmas trees in the hall, roughly 300 couples danced “one steps, waltzes, two-steps and fox trots” to the syncopated rhythms of the University of California Jazz Band. What they were doing in the Lehigh Valley was not explained.

Christmas Day found all but 200 of the men having Christmas dinner at the homes of local families. The men still at the camp got the regular Christmas meal and saw a movie: “The Man from Painted Post,” a western staring screen idol Douglas Fairbanks.

The Allentown Rescue Mission did not forget the poorest of the poor. Over 300 “varying in age from 6 to 60” were fed. Rev. Becker and his wife Rose saw to it that children who had very little got gifts of candies, fruits and nuts along with their chicken dinners.  “They were allowed to eat as much as they wanted,” the press noted. This was the 15th year the mission had held the Christmas event and would do so next year in a new building.

Christmas shopping had been a little more subdued than in peacetime but Hess Brother’s, Leh’s,  Zollinger’s and Lawfer’s had Santa on hand.  And along with many other retail stores they offered bargains. Easy chairs were going for $18.30 at Penn House Furniture Co.  Shoppers might also get a Japanese Tea Set for $2.49, floor lamps for $11.98 and a $69.75 value Library Suite of two leather covered chairs and a leather cover settee for $39.75. Leh’s had silk kimonos for women at $15.00. For those with money to spend that were Hudson seal coats for $100. Men’s bathrobes were going for $5 and up.  Hess Brothers had ever popular sleds for $2.25. There were windup trains from $1.00 to $2.00, electric trains for $7.50, and Erector Sets starting at $1.00. Women were being offered silk shirt waists at $2.95.

Of course, there were some people who did not want the fuss of a big Christmas dinner at home or were unable to get one together. For them the Hotel Allen had the perfect thing. “SPECIAL CHRISTMAS DINNERS” were offered between 12:30 p.m. and 8 p.m. The price was $1.00 or $1.50. “One of the Hotel Allen’s most popular services is our new OYSTER BAR,” touted the hotel’s manager, Elmer E. Heimbach.

A prize fight at Christmas may not sound like the favorite way to celebrate the day, but the Lyric Arena was offering three that day in 1917.  For $2.00 including the war tax you could watch Willie Laughlin and local favorite Joe McCarron go at it in a 2:30 p.m. Christmas Day match.

And there were the movies. The Strand was offering actress Alice Brady in a war themed film, “The Maid of Belgium.” The Pergola had continuous showings of Pauline Fredrick in “Lydia Gilmore” and the Keystone Comedy “She Needed A Doctor.”

For fans of live theater there was the Lyric, now Miller Symphony Hall, with a mystery play “The Silent Witness.”  It was put on by Charles K. Champlin a popular producer of the day. A balcony seat could be had for 20 cents, 50 cents for the orchestra.

But many in the Lehigh Valley probably had little time for these secular pursuits. Christmas was a religious holiday, so they went to church and prayed heartily for the war to end, peace to come and that their sons, husbands, brothers, fathers and in some cases daughters, would come home to them safe and whole.


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