Peg Away And Keep Smiling: The “Santa Claus” Ship Brings Christmas To War-Torn Europe

Depending on how you look at it, “The Santa Claus Ship” was either a Christmas miracle or an exercise in audacity.

When Lilian Bell and James Keeley called on the children of America to give up their money and their toys and their time to send Christmas to Europe, they made a promise that they would get the donations on a ship, send it into the heart of the war zone, and get each precious gift into the hand of a refugee or war orphan. But on September 5, they didn’t have a ship. They didn’t have access to a ship. They didn’t have a warehouse. They didn’t have a staff or operating budget. They didn’t have the approval of the Wilson Administration – much less that of foreign governments.

Postcard bearing Lilian Bell's "Inasmuch" Flag of Peace.
Postcard bearing Lilian Bell’s “Inasmuch” Flag of Peace.

Then, suddenly, they did. Everything fell into place, and not just on the U.S. side. By the time the Jason dropped anchor in Plymouth, England on November 25, there was a robust distribution system already in place. The same was true in Marseilles, France on December 5 and in Genoa, Italy on December 7. Thousands of civilian volunteers sorted and resorted goods, while he Red Cross took the lead in making sure Christmas Ship boxes traveled along safe routes to the places they were most needed. Not one of the more than 10,000 boxes was recorded as lost.

Even the calendar seemed to align itself in the ship’s favor. The Jason wasn’t going to be able to stop at a port within reach of Russia. So the British government agreed to take the Russian allocation on one of their own ships to Bergen, Norway, where it could be transported via Finland for distribution. This was a much longer trip. But everything still got there in time for Christmas….because the Russian Orthodox Church observed Christmas two weeks later than the West.

Another miracle was the acceptance of Allied governments of the Jason as a “peace ship.” Distributions of gifts and supplies went to German and Austria just as they did England and France. This ecumenical approach reflected not just Lilian Bell’s personal philosophy, but the political reality of the moment: the United States had formally declared neutrality at the start of the war, and had she or James Keeley gone to the President and presented a plan that favored one side, Woodrow Wilson would have almost certainly turned them down.

By mid-February, U.S. newspapers were regularly carrying stories of grateful recipients writing to thank those who had sent them gifts (and who had thought to include a note with a name and address).

A teacher in Belgium wrote a donor in California what had happened the day she walked into her classroom with an armload of presents. “The children were clasping their hands and cried together in our mother tongue, ‘Lang leve onze kleine Amerikaansche vriends – long live our little American friends – and the boys and girls were dancing and singing around me, of them kissing my hands. Their merriment was undescribable.” Madame Valentine Ratel, a schoolteacher in Nolay, France, wrote a class in San Francisco thanking them for their kindness to her students. “Kisses and shake hands!” she signed off in wobbly English.

A high school student in Leavenworth, Kansas received a letter Bletchworth, England, thanking her for a red sweater she had donated. Frances Rushton wrote on behalf an appreciative 14-year old Belgian refugee. “She knows very little English and I doubt if she will have the courage to try to write you.” The girl and her parents had been turned out of their home in a village between Ypres and Lille with a half-hour’s notice “leaving with nothing but the clothes on their backs” and with a fifty-mile walk to safety. Times were difficult for the Belgians and their supporters, but in the meantime, “we shall peg away and keep smiling.”

A girl in Minonk, Illinois got a letter from the mother of a young refugee in Scheveningen, Holland. “”The family of De Mal, a Belgian family, refugees in Holland, thank Miss Elizabeth Roberts very sincerely for the beautiful doll which she sent on the occasion of the trouble of the little Belgian refugee. This doll pleases Lily…Her mamma would like very much for Miss. Roberts to answer and tell what she does every day. This war is very painful to the Belgians and you may know that we well appreciate the generosity and the good cheer of the Americans. Lily sends good wishes and thanks with me and signs this with her own hand. Lily.”

Refugee Josef Verhist created a thank you postcard out of a photo and parts of different postage stamps.
Refugee Josef Verhist created a thank you postcard out of a photo and parts of different postage stamps.

Sometimes, people sent tokens. Irene Chappelle, a 12-year old refugee from Reims, sent Mrs. Katherine Roberts of Chicago a bunch of dried violets bound in red, white and blue ribbon as thanks for a doll and coin she had received. “When papa returns from the war and we can return to our home, I shall take your doll with me, and I shall never forget the one who gave it to me. I shall preserve the coin as a souvenir of you and your country.” Josef Verhist, a refugee father of three, sent Minnie Franklin of Vancouver a homemade postcard: a landscape of Holland painstakingly created out of parts of different stamps.

In the fall of 1915, Lilian Bell published The Story of the Christmas Ship, a “charming” account of the project, “full of laughter, of tears, of good fellowship,” in the words of one prominent reviewer.

There was no call to the American children in 1915 to send toys and aid to their European cousins. The U.S. did send a “Christmas Ship,” but this was packed with humanitarian supplies for the starving people of Serbia. Another full year of combat had created more orphans, more refugees, more starving people. A “Santa Claus Ship” seemed, at best, quaint.

“Millions in Europe are dying in the agonies of starvation, cold and disease,” wrote one commentator in widely reprinted editorial. “What a ghastly joke it would be in these circumstances for the richest and luckiest nation to offer those millions of pitiful children a little candy and fruit when they need milk and broth, mittens when they need blankets and clothing, dolls and toy trains when they need doctors and nurses and sanitary supplies. No, this is no time for polite momentoes. Let us concentrate on giving the only real help that would suffice and that would be welcome – peace as soon as possible.”

Lilian Bell’s Vision Splendid was just that – the heartfelt outpouring of millions of Americans to millions of Europeans, and one that did bring a little light to countless lives suddenly and irrevocably changed by war. It was a last burst of innocence at the start of a more cynical era.

Visit Remembering the 1914 “Santa Claus” Ship  on Pinterest for more images. 


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This work by Heather K Michon is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-ShareAlike 4.0 International License.

1 thought on “Peg Away And Keep Smiling: The “Santa Claus” Ship Brings Christmas To War-Torn Europe

  1. Wouldn’t it be something to have our children realize that by helping others less fortunate, the world could be a saner place.

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