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An Airman's Christmas in Holland December 4, 1944 While serving with the Tactical Air Force in the RCAF Mobile Unit, Wing #126 in Holland during the Second World War, I am not sure if I can recall all the things that made this "St. Nicholas" Christmas Eve in Holland happen. Regardless, it did, and it became my most memorable, and joyous time in the services, especially, when many events made this time of the war so unpredictable. It rained quite steadily for over thirty straight days, and under enemy fire, our airfield had to regroup from the village of Volkel and move back inland, further, from the German Border which was close to the Rhine River and the Black (Rockwell) Forest. The new air strip was a former German youth camp where a hurried landing strip was made for landing our spitfires and other fighter planes. We, of the ground crew, were supportive of each other. Now as one big family, from all parts of Canada and Britain who had been together from the invasion of France on to Belgium, Luxemburg, Holland and the German border, we became so aware of each others problems - at home, as parents with wives, children, and their struggling lives at home. We became aware of each others happenings and concerned about how each of us was coping with the war, and the separation of families. About the first of December, our thoughts began to drift to Christmas at home, and of our loved ones in the other parts of the Armed Forces. In my case, I had one brother in Belgium (Army) and another in Italy (Army), and one in Canada (RCAF). Of course, a Canadian Christmas at home was always special and joyous, and one of giving and receiving. Being away from home for so long, we certainly were homesick, to say the least. Mail was irregular, as always, and at times one would not have word from home for weeks on end. This made homesickness even more striking. Mail did finally come that Christmas to most of us, and my mail was very abundant and included five Christmas boxes loaded with bountiful sweets and goodies. So much so, that we were able to barter with each other for special preferences. When we went through our "loot", (a gift of love from loved ones at home), we did tell each other what we were going to keep and what we would trade. My pay then was $11.75 every two weeks and the five Christmas boxes meant so much it is difficult to explain. We gloated over our bountiful harvest of trading goods, but I sensed that we were not being genuine, and sincere. With the Christmas season now upon us, we all had felt sick, and, of course the best medicine for one and all would have been to be able to go home. One night, "Nicki" Nickerson from Liverpool, Nova Scotia "Frenchy" Eddie Leblanc, from St. Anslem, New Brunswick and myself, from Yarmouth, Nova Scotia took a walk to the home of a little Dutch boy named "Vim". He became our adopted mascot. He was 12 years old. He was a seasoned veteran victim of the German occupation of Holland. His mother and father were taken from the village of Heesch and made to do war-time work for the Germans, against their wills of course. His older brothers and sisters were also taken to youth camp in Germany. He was in the care of his grandmother along with twelve other children all under twelve years of age. They were staying in a small wood shed about 12" x 12" in size, with an addition of a small kitchen, a low ceiling, and a "loft" over both ceilings which was the sleeping quarters for all of the children. The care of these children was the responsibility, solely of the grandmother. Before we became aware of Vim, and before we'd made him our mascot, he would be seen around the Airmen's mess, going through the garbage cans, retrieving potato peelings, canned meat and anything eatable for himself or his brothers and sisters. Our garbage cans usually received any left over or undesirable rations and the remains of the tea with powdered milk were all placed in galvanized cans. To see him working through the garbage and retrieving any rations that would be eatable was utterly pathetic. I befriended him and told the rest of the cooking staff about him. One day we got together some left over food and we walked him home, about two miles from our airfield. The grandmother and the children were very frightened the first time they saw us escorting Vim home after dark with parcels. What the grandmother must have thought? The fear in her face was so evident. We asked Vim to explain in his own language. The pallid color and fear soon gave way to a feeble smile, then a thankful greeting, and a very humble welcome. The grandmother made a call outside and low and behold, a meek, elderly gentleman came into the house, with caution. After being out in the cold for about an hour or so he was relieved to come in. His English was not very good and we asked him why Vim had to pilfer garbage at the age of 12 like an animal. He told us that Vim was a big help for the survival of the children. He also related that he himself rand and hid when the Germans came to take any eligible youth or tradesman to help the German war efforts. He hid in the forest during the day and returned hovel (home) at night. He daily brought wood from the forest on this return. As we talked, the grandmother got out a pail of pot peelings Vim had retrieved from the garbage, and began to peel the discarded peelings. Airmen on K.P. duty peel potatoes liberally. Seriously, there were enough potatoes after the peelings were peeled to help make a "good" meal for all of the children. Vim was so eager to do his share, and to act responsible by any means at his disposal. Vim touched us hardened service men greatly. We finally bid the family good night and returned to base airfield. On the way home, our thoughts returned to our plans for our few days off at Christmas or New Year's, and of course, what means of finances we would need in the towns. The excess of our Christmas boxes from home made us feel quite well off. Suddenly, for some unknown reason, I felt like doing something different with my plans for the holidays. Out of nowhere, the blue so to speak, I announced to my "buddies", that I would take most of my "goodies" received from home and make up a box for Vim, his grandparents, and his relatives (twelve children - twelve years to three years). The date was December 3, two days before the Dutch Christmas. (December 5 is St. Nicholas Eve) The feeling was so good that I kept thinking it over and over. Next day I kept myself busy just finding things to wrap up the "goodies" with, just like we did at home. The preparations, and planning gave me a feeling of contentment, and it must have been noticeable to the airmen in our group - about 20 in one building. "Shorty" they called me. Some asked what I was doing. I told them what I was doing with my boxes, and that I was hoping to share it with Vim's family for Christmas, which was two days away. The day before (Dutch) Christmas, several of the airmen sharing our hut, asked if they could contribute to the cause as well. What a change from the way they talked, when our boxes first arrived, selling all the extra to finance our Christmas holiday. The giving fever seemed to spread around the airfield personnel and, to make a long story short, there was more than enough goodies for all the little Dutch family. We airman were exchanging smiles and friendship even more so than we usually did. I sincerely believe that we did know we were sharing and making our own Christmas in this giving cause to a simple struggling Dutch family. The next night, December 5 (The Dutch celebrate Sinterklaas - the name is a contraction of Sint Nikolaas - on December 5 and 6. The holiday, consisting of St. Nicholas's Eve and St. Nicholas's Day, honors the life of St. Nicholas) with several boxes of presents for Vim and his family, we took off for Vim's house around 10.30 p.m. Thirteen of us carried the boxes. We arrived at the home, and were greeted by a fearful look on the faces of the grandparents, until they recognized a few of us. We tried to explain what joy we were bringing to add to their meagre Christmas, but they could not understand what it was all about. We tried, then, to explain our Christmas custom at home in Canada which was about the importance of filling a stocking with goodies on Christmas Eve, and how joyful all children (and grown ups too) were when their stockings were filled to overflowing with things denied them all year. The grandfather would not let us put gifts in the 13 pairs of wooden shoes that were lined up in the meager hall, next to the homemade ladder, which led to the loft where all the children were sleeping. He and his wife seemed upset about something. We were puzzled at their response. We wanted to leave the boxes of gifts and go back to our hut. We started to say good night and to wish them a Happy St. Nicholas Day. He protested our leaving and talked to his wife, the grandmother, in their native language. Then, the grandmother motioned to us to remain in the kitchen and hall, which was overcrowded with us and boxes. She went to the loft (the sleeping quarters) of her grandchildren and awoke all of them as well as Vim. She talked to them with words of assurance, not to be afraid. When she admonished them to stand each by their own wooden shoes, they smiled and remained silent. Then Vim spoke to us in broken English that "the joy of the children" was at hand. We had lumps in our throats when he told us to put the sweets, food and presents at their feet. When we did, the joy of the children's eyes and their smiles was love and thankfulness for us all. That moment passed without a sound from anyone except some difficult gulping and swallowing from our throats. After a few moments, the children shook hands and hugged each airman. There were tears of joy flowing from all, especially from our 'tough airmen' who bore gifts and brought joy to so many little ones with the sacrifice of our presents from home. The word ‘thank you' did not need to be in spoken word, actions were sufficient. Our giving was not planned at all before we visited Vim's home the night before. In giving so little, we all received so much from the grandparents, Vim and the grandchildren. None of us would ever forget this special night. Before we said good night, Vim explained his grandparents' reaction to our arriving at their home. They tried so hard to relate to us that they could not give us something in return. So they, in their wisdom, tried to convey to us that we needed something in return for our gesture. So, they awoke all of the children from their deep sleep so we could receive a gift of Christmas, by letting us enjoy the joy of the children's' reaction which we would have missed if we had left the presents near the children's wooden shoes, as planned. They shared 'the joy of the next morning happiness' with us with a pre-Christmas morning excitement of joy that was expressed as our gifts from them - a Christmas joy that money could not buy. Thanks to Vim, his grandparents and the grandchildren, this family from an occupied country had no material things to give, but, gave the gift of sharing the ultimate, 'a beautiful family' with strangers from Canada. Yes, we bore gifts and received love - a true Christmas to remember. We finally left Vim's house and we trudged back to camp in the cold early morning. We sang carols and hymns on the way back. What was our religion? We were from various denominations, but we shared a common thing, that is, of giving to others much less fortunate than ourselves, the value of family sharing and the joy of sacrifice. Yet we all were happy. The true, real meaning of Christmas could never be explained or experienced better. That Christmas was over 40 years ago in time, but I vividly remember every fine detail at each Christmas, as though it were yesterday. "Shorty" Christmas 1980 LAC Wilfred Thomas Bishara 1918 - 2000 Royal Canadian Air Force 442 Squadron 126 Wing
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An Airman's Christmas in Holland December 4, 1944