The letter Norman wrote from Vitry le Francois, Christmas 1915 featured in the book “Mademoiselle Miss” published in 1916. However the newspaper in New Brunswick, New Jersey printed a less edited version of her letter which provided a fuller account of the events she described to her family.
It was over a month ago, when the stress of death and swift changes was at its height, that for once in my life I had a flash of forethought for Christmas; and when the Government offered me six days’ leave of absence to which we are entitled at this time, I refused it instantly. Mothers who love their children don’t go off and leave them with empty stockings then. And the poilu (French soldier) more than any other creature in the world, I believe, does love to be diverted.
I happened to tell my scheme to the young chemist who assists in the operating room. As he is enthusiastic to forward me in every way, from carrying wounded to providing me with chocolates which quickly disappear down thirty-three throats (to his great disappointment),he said it was a great idea but too much for me alone, and he suggested interesting his mother and her Paris friends. A tremendous lift as I didn’t hold exactly a lone hand. Then there is a dear bonnie old dame who plays the role of fairy godmother to my salle. For a long time I never knew who she was or where she came from; but twice a week, just at soup-time, in would trot the dear, quaint creature, all tied up in a woolen fichu with a huge basket filled for the whole family. Sometimes it held baked apples all sticky with jelly, sometimes a thick savory soup steaming hot, sometimes tarta, or ripe pears always a digestible inspiration. She’d slip in, set the basket on the table, and slip out, often before I had time to thank her. Later I found it was Mme. Nebout who keeps the tiny shop in the rue de Frigincourt; and I was almost sorry to place her, she was so like a figure out of Hans Andersen. One day I caught her on the fly to ask if she could help me order a tree. The keen, wrinkled eyes just danced. Not only she’d help me, but these pilgrims horticulteur who’d give me one if she said so, and she’d give me all the ribbons, and some handkerchiefs, and there was a confectioner who had bonbons to spare. So immediately I took heart and saw my little festa taking stately proportions. A little thinking at night after I had cuddled under my eiderdown, and these pilgrimages to town, of an hour end a half each, three days before Christmas did the rest; and Christmas Eve you couldn’t have found a prettier tree in the whole Republic than lifted its glimmering branches towards the rafters of Pavilion V.
Mme. B., my young friend’s mother, sent me a portly case with many bonbons, cigarettes, twenty pipes, and biscuits in profusion; and my good dames that house me so cheerfully tucked ten francs under my breakfast plate, and I myself stretched several points, “for Xmas comes but once a year.” So that at half-past six on Christmas Eve when the Medecin Chef came, very nervous, to preside over the lighting of those precarious candles, permission for which I had planned and plead so ardently, he saw a quite enchanting sight.
All the fourteen windows of the salle garlanded with ivy for which a faithful orderly had ferreted in the neglected environs of Vitry; all my twenty-nine wounded (the family is lacking four) propped on their pillows in anticipation; and in the middle our Tree, all a-glitter with bright globes and dozens of candles pinned on with many prayers that they would not make mischief,and bent under the weight of my tiny gifts attached with tricolor. At the very top a tinsel star constructed by me and an able-handed patient, with the tricolor at the topmost point above the stars, mark you! and little silk flags of the Allies clustered below, with a microscopic Stars and Stripes. All this was surprise and excitement enough, but no one was prepared for the grand coup that was to follow.
After the tree was lighted I flew off to the Salle de Pansements with “Grandpere” and a few minutes later out stepped as perfect a Père Noël as ever walked through the pages of a story book – A French Pere Noel – no Santa Claus. A blue-gray cape –mine ,but don’t tell – covered him from top to toe, and on the long white beard and peaked hood the fresh snow glistened cheerily a combination of mica, boracic acid, and cotton not at all banal in his
hand a knotted cane and classic lantern, feet tucked in deep, turned-up sabots, and on his back a basket with oranges and cakes for the whole hospital. You should have seen the joy and astonishment that accompanied his triumphal progress from pavilion to pavilion, several of us following to distribute the goodies!
Once when we went into a Salle d’isoiment where a poor fellow was languishing in the last stage of septic poisoning, there happened something strange and infinitely touching. He must have taken the apparition for something heavenly; for first a dazed look came over his face, then a marvelous smile, and he stretched out his arms. I bent down and whispered a Christmas message, and put an orange in his hand. It was his last consciousness.
“Grandpere” acquitted himself masterfully, made enchanting little discourses as if he had been a real actor instead of a simple peasant from the Oise; and Medecin-Chef, who at first had been dubious about the undertaking, was enchanted. When the distribution was over, I filled the arms of Père Noël with red roses (ordered from Troyes) to distribute among the infirmieres, and he made an effect in red, white, and blue,blue mantel, white beard, red roses altogether delightful. After that he gave to each of the doctors a little box daintily engraved with a wreath of flags and filled with dates I had stuffed at midnight. And then I began the distribution in my salle. Each wounded soldier had a “Poschette de la Victoire” four sheets of writing paper, four envelopes, and an ink pencil tied with tricolor a tiny mirror (they adore to look at themselves!), a tiny comb in a case, a bright package of bonbons, and a package of cigarettes. Tiny things, but all I could afford, and you would have thought Paradise had opened for them. There were fountain pens for my three infirmiers and Christmas Day I made Russian Tea and there were lots of cakes.
Thus passed Christmas of 1915, and to think I didn’t have to endure even the least pang of uneasiness for anyone!
I forgot to mention that one of my wounded made a speech from his bed, and every one cheered for “Mlle. Miss.”