The holiday season seems to bring out the best in people. Acts of service, kindness, and generosity are contagious and tend to envelop everyone around in a wave of goodwill. Such was the case in Louisville, Kentucky, in 1917. With the world embroiled in war, editors at The Courier-Journal decided to start a club named the “Christmas Cheer Club.” They wanted to raise money to buy gifts for soldiers training at nearby Camp Zachary Taylor. The Christmas Cheer Club blossomed into something bigger than anyone could have imagined. For just a moment, in December 1917, a spirit of magic filled Louisville. This is their story.
When the United States entered WWI in April 1917, military officials constructed 16 national army training camps. One of them, Camp Zachary Taylor, opened in Louisville in June 1917. At any given time, some 40,000 soldiers trained in the camp. Citizens of Louisville were honored to host the camp and sought ways to contribute to the war effort.
In October 1917, editors at The Courier-Journal had an idea. They organized a club and began planning a Christmas celebration for soldiers. They figured it was not only their privilege but a patriotic duty. Much to their delight, the community embraced the idea. The excitement began to spread and soon people across Kentucky and from as far away as Indiana and Southern Illinois joined the Christmas Cheer Club. The spirit of giving filled the city as citizens donated money, supplies and hosted fundraisers. Even children got involved. The shared cause and shared sacrifice brought a sense of unity and joy.
The Cheer Club established an ambitious goal to ensure that every soldier received a gift. They also planned to donate 229 decorated Christmas trees for soldiers’ barracks and 36 miniature trees for the base hospital. To accomplish the planned celebration, volunteers wrote each soldier’s family, suggesting they send gifts to the Christmas Cheer Club for distribution. This would allow organizers to purchase gifts for those that didn’t receive any from home. Finally, they planned a Christmas dinner and party for the whole camp.
Donations poured in. Busy volunteers worked long hours decorating trees, collecting gifts, and organizing the celebration. When the Secretary of War announced in mid-December that soldiers in training camps would not be allowed furloughs for Christmas, the mission of the Cheer Club became more critical than ever. Gen. H. E. Wilder from Camp Zachary Taylor realized the importance of morale and appointed a committee of 15 military officials to assist the Cheer Club with all arrangements.
As Christmas approached, volunteers worked frantically to complete the preparations. The offices at The Courier-Journal turned into a makeshift Santa’s workshop with hundreds of busy elves wrapping some 20,000 gifts. The soldiers awaited the celebration with the eagerness of children.
On Christmas Eve, volunteers filled delivery trucks with gifts and Christmas trimmings. Even though a cold rain fell, it couldn’t dampen the feeling of warmth and joy. The holiday convoy drove to the base, where volunteers joined the soldiers in a Christmas feast. Following dinner, soldiers returned to their barracks and gathered around their brightly lit Christmas trees to sing carols. Finally, with anticipation building, volunteers distributed gifts to each soldier. The feeling of joy was so profound that many soldiers choked back tears.
For all involved in the Christmas Cheer Club of 1917, ‘Christmas Cheer’ took on a whole new meaning. Camp Zachary Taylor was the only military camp in the country to participate in this type of Christmas celebration. Following Christmas, The Courier-Journal printed dozens of heartfelt thank-you notes from soldiers in the camp. Military officials and the War Department effused praise on the club, and citizens of Louisville discovered the joy of giving.
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