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Celebrating With War Orphans: A Christmas Story

By VIN SPARANO | Dec 18, 2019

It was 1955 and Christmas in Germany. I was a 21-year-old soldier and stationed for two years in Butzbach, a small farm village. This would be the first time away from my family on Christmas … and destined to be the last time this would happen. Christmas is and always will be a special holiday for my family. But that Christmas in Germany turned out to be extra special and one I will never forget.

Not far from our Army base was an orphanage for children whose parents, through the brutality of World War II, had been killed. The orphanage was run by a minister, his wife and their three children. I wish I could remember their names. I do recall that the minster was part of an underground movement during the war.

Our company commander decided to share our Christmas Day dinner with the minister, his family and all the children from the orphanage. The entire company gave this plan total support. We bought Christmas gifts for the 30 or so children and picked our most stout soldier to play Santa for them. Rather than seat everyone in separate groups, we placed every child between two soldiers.

Watching those children, most about 10 years old, show up and march quietly into our mess hall and sit down between soldiers was very strange indeed. It’s hard to imagine what these children must have endured during the war years. They were probably too young to even know how their mothers and fathers were killed or maybe deemed missing in the bombings.

The children were young in years, but their faces told a different story. They initially did not speak until we started to talk to them. Hand signals and smiles overcame the language barrier. Yes, it was awkward until Santa showed up and began to distribute Christmas presents. It seemed that suddenly these children remembered what Christmas was like before their families were decimated.

I also wondered if they had ever had a Christmas dinner with shrimp cocktails, roast turkey, cranberry sauce, glazed sweet potatoes, apple pie and unlimited candy and ice cream. I still have the menu. But the best was yet to come.

The minister asked our company commander if he could take two soldiers home for Christmas dinner with his family. I was one of those lucky soldiers. The other was my Army buddy Pat Miskill. We took a Jeep and followed the minister and the busload of orphans to his home. It was a small house about 10 yards from the orphanage. I was surprised by the size of the Christmas tree, which he had cut down in a nearby forest. The tree was huge and covered with handmade ornaments.

What surprised me most, though, was when his children started lighting candles that were carefully placed on the limbs. When I mentioned the potential fire hazard, the minister just laughed. Those flickering candles made that Christmas tree glow like one I had never seen before.

Our dinner was simple in contrast to our Army feast. Sausages, sauerkraut and a bread pudding – that was it. This was their Christmas dinner. My heart went out to these surviving children, who knew nothing of war until it destroyed their homes and families. Thinking back all those years, I enjoyed that Christmas dinner with that German family and the children from the orphanage better than eating in an Army mess hall. Perhaps this is partly why I feel so strongly about Christmas.

It was here that I also learned about the old German Christmas pickle tradition. A Christmas pickle ornament is buried in the boughs of a Christmas tree. The first child to find it on Christmas morning would be blessed with good luck and get an extra gift. I brought this wonderful tradition back home with me. Today, I’m often surprised how many people do not know about this tradition, which can be traced back to the 1890s.

After that memorable dinner, we all started singing Christmas carols. At first, it seemed silly to a couple of soldiers in a foreign land. The minister and his children sang in German and Pat and I in English. The words sounded different, but the melodies and messages were the same. Especially poignant was “Silent Night.”

As Pat and I drove back to our base and our spindly Charlie Brown Christmas tree, we knew we had been given a special Christmas present. I sometimes wonder what became of all those orphans and the minister and his children, who so willingly shared their Christmas with a couple of soldiers far away from home. It happened 64 years ago.

Merry Christmas!

Vin Sparano of Waretown, N.J., was a year-round resident of High Bar Harbor for over 20 years. His LBI roots go back decades.


 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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