From the very beginning of their stationing in Augsburg, the occupying U.S. troops cultivated their cultural and social customs. While there were a few typical American holidays that were non-existing or, at best, similar in Germany, Christmas was a standard holiday on both continents, although with different nuances. So the Americans were able to surprise the population of Augsburg with their Christmas customs.
Already in 1946, the occupation forces organized a little Christmas celebration with kids of Displaced Persons (DPs), housed in great number at what was later to be called Reese Barracks (then still Arras-, Panzerjäger- and Somme-Kaserne). The Ukrainian writer Alexandra Hawryluk, described this celebration in a moving article in 2005*). Military trucks transported the kids to the Officers Club at (what was later called) Sheridan Kaserne, where they experienced an unforgettable giving of Christmas presents. Nothing is reported about any attending kids from Augsburg.
Realizing that the social misery of the post-war years could be positively linked with a political gesture of reconciliation, the U.S. military soon began the democratization of the German public - with the children. At the same time, the black mark of occupation forces could be mitigated via gaining the youth. Last but not least, the child-friendliness of the American GIs supported the successful implementation of the reeducation program.
At the end of the 1940s, the stationed troops used to invite needy kids from Augsburg to Christmas celebrations at the kasernes. This happened, as in later years, in the well-appointed former Offiziersheime of the Wehrmacht, utilized as officers club or mess hall by the Americans. The beginning 1950s, the city’s post-war misery still unabated visible, were the heyday of the German American Christmas celebrations. Hundreds of kids were invited for a few happy hours at all kasernes, including Gablingen. Large ruined areas were still evident in city of Augsburg. At that time, infantryman John M. Holman, 109th Infantry, described – published many years later on his website – his insights at a 1951 children’s Christmas celebration in Gablingen. Every kid had a soldier to look after her/him, and sometimes even long-lasting friendships developed out of this short relationship.
In 1952, Gablingen’s 109th Infantry really viewed one another for giving Christmas presents. All thru Christmas week, one giving followed the other; Santa Claus came even flying in by a helicopter. War orphans made up a special target group. According to press reports, on December 20 alone, 1,627 girls and boys from Augsburg were showered with toys, candy, and typical Yuletide food.
After the 43rd and 5th Infantry Division, the moving in 11th Airborne Division drew attention via Christmas campaigns. Besides children, also old people were supported. In 1957, the partly unpopular paratroopers put up an enormous Christmas tree in front of their headquarters at Flak Kaserne, were Santa appeared on a reindeer sleigh.
*) Published in The Ukrainian Weekly, January 9, 2005, No. 2, Vol. LXXIII
The regional U.S. Forces newspaper from 1947 until ca. 1952, the ‘Augsburg Post Times’, reported on Christmas care of Augsburg children in 1951.
Trust-building actions face-to-face. Later, such scenes were sometimes disqualified as propaganda pictures of the occupying forces. In 1949, these were unforgettable moments of humanity for the involved kids as well as the American soldiers. (Photo: Isolde Ehrensberger estate).
Pictures from Gablingen Kaserne: Top: Children’s Christmas 1949 (Photo: Private). Below: waiting kids from Gersthofen and Gablingen in front of Bldg 445 (Photo: John M. Holman). Bottom: Copy of a 1951 Schwäbische Landeszeitung article about a Christmas celebration at the Café Lohwald, Westheim (Note: Werner Lorenz).
Christmas 1952 in the Flak Kaserne: Soldiers of the 43rd Infantry Division eat with needy children Augsburg. At a time when major food shortage, this meant an extremely estimable experience that shaped memories into adulthood for young Augsburg.
As time goes by
Also after the reorganization of the 11th Airborne Division to the 24th Infantry Division, Christmas activities were preserved in the 1960s. Children’s refuges and orphanages in the Augsburg area were delighted by Santa Claus visits. In 1961, Major General Charles M. Bonesteel invited around 800 guests to a big Christmas Ball at the Sheridan Officers Club.
Due to the typical American Santa Claus Christmas tradition, the Augsburger realized that he was not identical with the German Sankt Nikolaus with miter and bishop’s crook. Santa Claus appeared humorously, with a little red coat and pointed cap – everything, including the American Christmas music, was lively and cheerful. That was actually almost an affront against the formal, contemplative and ceremonial German Christmas culture. Nevertheless more and more Augsburges rejoiced at the American type Christmas that came versatile across, especially at the housing areas: America had obviously arrived in Augsburg.
A completely different constellation of Christmas support was the gathering of residents of old people’s homes at the Sheridan Officers Club. Among others, kids from the Elementary School, dressed as American Christmas angels, looked after the senior citizens at Christmas. Organized were these gatherings by the German-American Women’s Club. Dozens of US children sang Christmas carols in German as well as in English, and gave gifts to the seniors. As a matter of fact, Christmassy contribution visits, bazaars and festivities were part of the annual standard program of the German-American Women’s Club.
From a 24th infantry Division Christmas paper, 1960s.
Santa Claus arrives in a M60 tank. Casual scene at Sheridan Kaserne during a fund raising Christmas party for kids in 1976 (Photo: Via Michael Jungblut, 3/63rd Armor).
Present-giving to residents of an Augsburg senior citizens home by American Christmas angels from the Elementary School at the Sheridan Kaserne Officers Club, 1974 (Photo: G-A Women’s Club).
By the end of the 1970s, there was a change in the German-American Christmas culture. U.S. Headquarters at Heidelberg promoted a competition in order to get American soldiers invited by German families at Christmas. As in other U.S. garrisons, also in Augsburg appropriate appeals were published, and community commanders contended for the largest accommodation figures.
The humanitarian goal of that Christmas Cheer was to free bachelor or married soldiers without their families of any pre-Christmas kaserne dreariness by establishing contact with German families. The contemplative German Christmas (“quiet hours”) became a real experience for the attending GIs, especially as the Americans had not known Christmas Eve as a highlight.
These Christmas actions with up to 100 accommodations per year went on until 1991, but still it was not always possible to accommodate each and every soldier. The Public Affairs Office executed the extremely lavish organization of those Christmas accommodations. In contrast to most other garrisons, Augsburg soldiers were introduced to their selected guest families beforehand at the Sheridan Officers Club. Requests and interests, but also possible dislikes of both parties, were taken into consideration a far as possible. Here also, long-term friendships developed between the involved parties.
A German family looking after two GIs in the 1970/80s (Photo: Private).
And last but not least: American soldiers experienced their Christmas with Santa Claus and lively carols also in the kasernes in very different ways. One historical legacy remains until today the - then unusual - colorful festive lighting that was not cherished by all Germans. Yet, by now, they are part of the lasting US influence on post-war Germany. With the fall of the Berlin Wall, the German reunification and the final U.S. troop withdrawal from almost all garrison cities, the chapter bi-national Christmas was closed. Today, the former soldiers, male and female, remember with melancholy the Augsburg “Christkindlesmarkt”, which became a special export product of memories. And the veterans who stayed here, visit it with the same great enthusiasm year by year.
Giving of Christmas presents at Reese Barracks, mid 1980s (Photo: via Todd Jones, 1st Bn, 36th Field Artillery).
Christmas in the barracks: Flak Kaserne, 66th MI Bde, end of 1980s (Photo: AiA archives).
An afternoon for senior citizens at the Sheridan Officers Club, 1988 (Photo: G-A Women’s Club).
At the Christmas party of the Women's Club in 1986, the German President Marina Lindenberg present a Christian child, the American President Candy Edgerley as Santa Claus (Photo: German-American Women's Club).
Local national employees’ Christmas in the 1990s. Before the festivities, there were Christmas speeches by the Director of Engineering and Housing (DEH), a representative of the Community Commander, and the deputy chief of the Works Council as Santa Claus (Photos: Private).
Invitation to a 24th Infantry Division’s Christmas Dinner at Reese Barracks, 1967.