The dirty “Forty-and-Eight” was to be our home for several days as it rumbled over the railroad tracks of northern Germany. We were occupation troops fresh from the United States, replacing battle-weary GIs who were eager to return home now that the war had ended.
Our troopship had docked the day before at Bremerhaven after a rough 11-day crossing on the cold Atlantic. Two weeks before, we had mingled with happy, carefree Christmas shoppers in New York City. It was the first peacetime Christmas for our nation in four years.
Today in our “Forty-and-Eight” boxcar (a name carried over from World War I for German boxcars that held 40 men or eight mules), we were lonesome, homesick, torn apart from families and friends.
The night of December 23 was a nightmare. In the darkness we were tossed from one end of the boxcar to the other as the train stopped and started. A few straw ticks were provided for us if we cared to try to catch some sleep. But such attempts were useless, because those who were still standing or moving about fell over those on the floor in the darkness of the boxcar.
At noon on the 24th, as we sat on the floor in groups eating from the box of rations that had been provided for each of us, one of the fellows hit upon a great idea. We passed around a transparent bag, and each of us dropped in one item of food from our rations. We hoped that the next time the train stopped for a while, we might trade the food for some candles.
One of the fellows in our group spoke German, so we asked him to negotiate for us. Our train went on and on through the German countryside. Nighttime came and still we were moving down the tracks. We had just about given up hope when our train pulled into the large railroad yards at Munich and stopped.
Our friend immediately began calling out into the darkness. Soon a small, frail boy about 10 years old slowly approached our car. We could imagine his fear because just a few months before, we had been his country’s enemies. He was baffled that one of us knew his language so well and wondered what we wanted of him. One of the men struck a match, and the bag glistened beautifully. Our spokesman explained that the bag of food would be his if he could get us some candles before our train left. The boy’s mouth dropped open, his eyes stared at the bag for a moment and then he dashed off into the darkness. We didn’t realise then that there probably was more food in that bag than he had ever seen at one time.
With each creak and groan of our car, we felt sure our train was leaving. But after what seemed an eternity, we could see the boy coming back toward us, sometimes almost falling over the tracks as he ran.
One of the fellows lit a match as the boy reached the side of our car. He set a brown bag on the floor. In it were eight homemade candles in cupcake papers. We immediately lit one, and it cast a feeble but warm glow in our boxcar. We decided not to light more than one at a time in hope that the eight might last the entire night. We thanked the boy and gave him the food. He then pulled his other hand from behind his back. In it he held a branch from a Christmas tree, about 450mm long. On it was a single strand of tinsel. We set it in a crack in the floor. The tinsel fluttered in the crisp breeze and reflected the glow of our flickering candle.
Then we heard sounds that told us our train was on its way. We shouted our thanks to the boy as he stood and waved goodbye to us.
A deep silence fell over our group, and slowly we gathered into a circle around our candle and “tree.” Some in front sat cross-legged on the floor. Others knelt behind them, and the third row stood. I don’t recall just who really began, but we took turns at our Christmas Eve worship service. We didn’t have enough light to read our pocket-size New Testaments, but we recited some Scriptures the best we could from memory. We sang Christmas carols and said sentence prayers, and one of the fellows gave a short impromptu meditation.
And then we had communion. We had no bread or wine, but we spoke the words—“Take, eat: this is my body, which is broken for you”—and we touched our lips. Then—“This cup is the new testament in my blood: this do ye, as oft as ye drink it, in remembrance of me.” Again, we touched our lips. Softly we sang “Silent Night” and then spoke a benediction.
Slowly the circle broke up. Our loneliness and homesickness seemed to be gone. We felt a great friendship toward one another. We knew we had just been given the greatest gift we had ever received.
Many Christmases have come and gone, and I’ve attended communion almost every Christmas Eve. The services have been beautiful with tall lighted tapers, silvery service, plush carpeting—everything to make a beautiful experience. These services have meant a lot to me, but my thoughts still go back many years to a dirty boxcar, a circle of lonely GIs, a homemade candle in a cupcake paper, a branch with a lone strand of tinsel, a frail German boy and the solemn words, “Do this in remembrance of me.”
Reprinted with permission of Joe L Wheeler, editor and compiler of Christmas in My Heart, #11, and Review and Herald Publishing Association. For information about obtaining this and other books in the series, see http://www.joewheelerbooks.com.