Christmas Cheer Club Lives Up to Its Name

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.

What were your hometown’s holiday traditions? Search our archives for more sweet Christmas stories on Newspapers.com™ today.

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15 thoughts on “Christmas Cheer Club Lives Up to Its Name

  1. Life was so much different in 1916. Simply receiving attention was wonderful and gifts, that made it glorious. It is not hard to imagine how those boys felt when they finally got to bed. The last carol sung and the last cookie eaten, and the last story told. This is what they signed up to fight for, this made Christmas very real in their hearts.

  2. Thank you for sharing this story. It makes me proud of my home state and its citizens. I already was, but this is another good reason. Do you have more about this club, and what became of it? Did it evolve into a yearly thing? Whether it did or not, it was a wonderful thing to do and to be part of for those in service.

  3. What a wonderful story. One cannot imagine anything remotely like that happening in our selfish, self-centered world. Life was different then, I guess.

    • Yes, there are those who are selfish & self-centered. But there are many organizations that provide a Christmas for military & everyday citizens of this great country — Soldiers’ Angels, Salvation Army, Food Banks, etc. We cannot let ourselves become cynical; we can help these organizations do what they do!

  4. Wonderful story.
    We live very near Camp Pendleton in California. Whenever we see military we thank them for their service. We pick up their checks often in local restaurants. They are so appreciative.

  5. Thank you for sharing. The joy that filled their hearts had help get them we m through. Very inspiring!

  6. Great story! I can’t help but think about how a year later many of those same soldiers died from the Spanish flu. I had two great uncles (brothers) who died within a month of each other from this influenza.

  7. Merry Christmas to all the familys of the soldiers that past and Merry Christmas to all the soldiers that can’t make it home, this story is very inspiring and motivating thank for all the soldiers that fought past and present Merry Christmas to all

  8. I’ve lived in Louisville KY for 27 years and had not heard about this. What a lovely story to hear about my adopted hometown. Means even more to me this year because my youngest son is in Basic Training and we are missing him so much. Merry Christmas to all who came before him and all who presently serve with him. And I hop you all have a safe and Happy New Year!

  9. What a CHEERFUL CHRISTMAS happened in 1917 for all the WW! soldiers ! . An Illinois History person!

  10. Kentucky is often known for many negative stereotypes, but we step up when duty calls! This is an excellent example going back many years and runs through current day as shown by the very generous response to the victims of the tornados in Western Kentucky, spearheaded by our very able governor! Thanks so much for sharing this timely story! Makes that subscription very worth the price!

  11. One of the many things DAR (Daughters of the American Revolution) does is support our active and retired military… in the years I’ve been a member, we’ve assisted by writing cards, giving phone cards to keep them connected, give small needed items, etc… one year we even sent Christmas trees to a submarine crew! The holiday brings out the best in people and is a way to show our appreciation!

  12. This is such a heart warming story. It really makes me proud to know how much love is out there for our Military men and women. I am proud of all Men and Women of service and thank you for our freedoms that you protect for us.

  13. I can’t imagine the joy in the hearts of the Cheer Club members and they worked. It is easy to write a check, but more hands-on opportunities bring warmth to the hearts of both giver and recipient. I need to look for these opportunities, even small ones.

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