The Men Who Gave a Town Back its Christmas
December 5, 1944
Seventy-five years ago today, a small unit of U.S. soldiers was given a break after their bloody battle in the Hürtgen Forest on the border of Germany. The troops were pretty beat up and sad that they would be unable to be with their families at home for Christmas. They moved into the small Luxembourg town of Wiltz. The people of Wiltz, mostly women and children, had been under the hard rule of the German Army for four years and had just been liberated by the Allies. The town had been a center of resistance and the Wehrmach had dealt severely with them.
As the American soldiers entered the town they could see how beaten down the populace was. Corporal Harry Stutz, a cryptographer, was talking to a resident and discovered that Wiltz hadn’t had a St. Nicholas Festival during the entire occupation. Being that the region was highly devout Catholic, this had been a terrible blow. Stutz convinced the unit’s mobile kitchen to make doughnuts and then convinced the soldiers to donate candy and chocolates from their care packages that had just caught up with them. He secured food supplies so that the nuns in the local convent could cook a feast. Finally, he convinced a buddy of his, corporal Richard Brookins, to don the local Catholic priest’s vestments and a beard made from rope and stand in for St. Nicholas. They formed a procession and drove through the streets on a jeep, stopping to bless the children and hand out sweets. Eventually they finished off with the feast cooked by the nuns. They gave the town of Wiltz back their Christmas.
In a short time the war came knocking and the unit formed a rear guard, the last to pull out of Wiltz and attempt a retreat when the Germans Ardennes-Alsace Campaign rolled over the territory and into the American defenses at Bastogne in the Battle of the Bulge. Not all of them made it out. Some were killed or captured and tortured. The memory of Wiltz, just one day amongst many, quickly drifted to back recesses in their minds as they fought through the agony of the rest of the war. Wiltz fared poorly as well, as the Germans bombed and reclaimed their area for a time.
After the war, the soldiers went home and their memories of the event virtually faded until the 1970s, when another member of unit, Frank McClelland, returned to the area to make peace with his service in the war and his memories of the Battle of the Bulge. However, Frank made a startling discovery: while most of Luxembourg had returned to celebrating St. Nicholas Festival, ever since the war, Wiltz also celebrated the American St. Nicholas. Every year they reenacted the jeep parade, stopping precisely where the jeep stopped and reciting the words that were spoken, in order to commemorate the soldiers who gave back Christmas to their children. They sent Frank McClelland back to the U.S. with the charge of finding their American St. Nicholas. He found the old saint, Richard Brookins, and the people of Wiltz invited him back to commemorate his role in bringing Christmas back to their town. The original festival organizer, Harry Stutz, developed friendships with the people of Wiltz throughout the years and returned as well.
And here’s the biggest irony: Corporal Harry Stutz, the man who was moved to give back the children of Wiltz their Christmas, was Jewish. When asked him what possessed him to have compassion upon a town full of Catholics, he searched for words and said, "It was a human thing to do. It was for the children, to make the children happy. They weren't going to have a festival, no chocolate, no cookies, no joy."
Wiltz remembers and pledges to remember forever. We should remember.