(Editor’s Note: This is transcript of a radio broadcast presented from the Finnish-Russian war front Christmas, 1939, by W.L. White of Emporia, Kansas, of CBS Radio, “The Day in Europe” at 6:34 p.m. EST.)
W.L. White speaking to you on this Christmas night from Finland, the country where our legend of Santa Claus and his reindeer first began.
Reindeer still pull sleighs in the north of Finland tonight, carrying supplies to the little nation’s army which is fighting to press back the great army which would come in. But if part of our Christmas story began in Finland, this is also the country where Christmas ends, for beyond the line of its armies lies that great land where there is no Christmas any more, and where the memory of its stories is dimming fast. And this is why, since I have come from a front line post-of-command of this Finnish army, I can tell you tonight about the last Christmas tree. And although you have many finer ones in America tonight, tall trees gay with tinsel, proud with sparkling colored balls, and rich with presents underneath wrapped in pretty papers and tied with silver cords, I think you would like these even better when you know about that brave and sad last little Christmas tree at the very edge of the land where Christmas ends.
Even without our guide we might have found the last Christmas tree by following the sound of big guns from far off. Presently when they were close, we left our cars and followed a trail in the deep snow which wound toward the guns through a tall spruce forest, the snow on their branches glistening in the moonlight. The trail led past the second line dugouts on through the woods toward the guns, and sometimes we stepped aside to let pass a horse drawn sleigh, fitted to carry warm boilers of steaming hot soup up to the men ahead. We were told to walk quietly now. Talking in whispers, we passed places where the white snow had been gashed deep by shell craters, and at last we came to the front line post-of-command. The officer here greeted us in a tired voice saying we should go no further, as this forest had only yesterday been retaken from the Russians whose lines were a few hundreds yards ahead, and his men had not had time to dig safe trenches. Beyond us was no real front line but only machine gun nests, dugouts and a few shallow trenches, a place where it was not safe for any man to crawl who had not first seen the country by clear light of day. But perhaps we would like to go down into his front line command post dugout, talk to his men and see their Christmas tree.
The dugout was deep beneath snow and earth, and warmed from the zero weather by a tiny stove. Tired men were lying on the straw-strewn floor and when they rose to greet us we could see by the light of the shaded lantern that their faces were weary and unshaven. The officer explained for this, saying fighting had been very hard, the enemy had greatly outnumbered them, so when there was no fighting there was time for little but sleep.
We asked him what the men would have for Christmas dinner and he told us their mess kits would be filled with thick warm pea soup, rich with pieces of mutton and pork, with plenty of bread spread thick with butter and for dessert, porridge with sugar. And then, because it was Christmas, the army had sent up four Christmas hams, which would be sliced and eaten with the bread.
He said we should remember that several sledges had come laden with Christmas presents for the men — warm sweaters and socks knitted by their wives, or Christmas cookies and tarts baked by them, and there would be something for each man.
We asked when the men up ahead in the last machine gun posts and dugouts would get their presents and he said not until tomorrow, but they would not mind, because each man knew why he must be there, and what must be done and not one would wish himself in any other place and because the people of this country love Christmas so much, each one could carry it his heart.
Then we asked if, at our own risk, we might not crawl up and give them some of the cigarets and sweets and tobacco we had brought. He shook his head saying if we made a noise and attracted Russian artillery there might be losses among his men, and this was not good to happen on Christmas night.
But tomorrow those men would get their presents in this dugout and also the Christmas tree would be saved for them to see. The tiny tree was standing near the stove. Little red and white wax candles had been tied by men’s clumsy fingers to its branches. The officer said the candles could not be lit, because this might be seen by bombers through the dugout’s canvas roof. Also tied to the green spruce twigs were a few gum drops — the kind you buy twisted in colored wax papers. At the very top was tied not a sparkling glass star but a cheap cardboard image of Santa Claus, and this was all. No strips of tinsel, no shining balls, no winking electric lights — You can be very glad that the Christmas tree in your home tonight is so much finer.
We asked the officer who sent these ornaments and he smiled kindly and said that they came from a very small girl whose father was out on the last line tonight, and with them a note from her mother explaining that the child was very young, and could not understand why he could not come back to them even on Christmas and had cried bitterly until they let her send these little things so that at least he could have his own Christmas tree. So the tree would be kept as it was in the dugout until he came back from his outpost tomorrow.
So when you take your last look at your own fine tree tonight before turning out its lights, I think you will like it even better since you know about the last sad little Christmas tree of all, which could not even have its poor candles lit because it faces the land where there is no Christmas — Returning you now to Columbia in New York.
— Editor’s Note: Robert Sherwood, the New York playwright, fumbling at the radio dial Christmas evening, ran into this broadcast. He was deeply stirred by it. He wrote to friends the next day that he was moved by the broadcast to write a play about the menace to democracy. He began work on it the first week of the new year. The play was presented in New York April 22, 1940. It is entitled “There Shall Be No Night.” It was an immediate success. Mr. Sherwood invited Mrs. W.L. White and Mr. and Mrs. W.A. White to the opening performance and the night that W.L. White landed in New York from Europe May 13, he and Mrs. White were Mr. Sherwood’s guests at the theater.