Hanging among my bookshelves, I have an unusual letter. It was written one hundred years ago, Christmas Day 1916. The author was a soldier of the First World War, writing from the snowy Alps. He was my grandfather, Cesare Stasi, a twenty year old Italian private.
“Dearest loved ones,” he began. “It’s Christmas, it’s Christmas, and I still find myself in the trenches.”
Italy entered World War I in May 1915, ten months following the outbreak of fighting. The Italians previously had allied with Germany and Austria-Hungary. But hoping to seize Austrian land, they broke the alliance to join the English and French. Like most Europeans before them, Italy rushed gladly to war. These were “the sunny days of May,” according to a contemporary Italian poet. Seeking glory, they instead became mired in a desultory series of long battles in the Austrian Alps, just over the Italian border. By war’s end in November 1918, the Italian front had claimed over half a million lives and accomplished little.
The letter indicates that my grandfather enlisted or was conscripted in summer 1916. I wonder if he joined with patriotic fervor, if he foresaw adventure, or simply sought a paycheck. In a boyish photograph framed with his letter, he wears a spotless uniform and cap.
In December 1914, the first winter of war, an informal “Christmas truce” occurred in France and Belgium. Killing stopped and the enemies met in the shell-scarred terrain between trenches to talk, trade, smoke, even sing hymns. Such fraternization was banned afterwards, yet my grandfather described something similar. “Even here this Holy holiday is recognized, not because there is any special food, nor because we can eat panettoni; but because the Austrian faithful, true to their religion, have not fired a single shot either today or yesterday, only our artillery last night persisted in shelling the other side, but they remained silent.”
He marveled at the quiet and calm of laying down his weapon: “How beautiful it seems after five months to be one day without firing a single gunshot!”
He wrote in pencil, on a thin paper seven by eight and one-half inches. Its survival a full century later is amazing. The letter references many other correspondences: “It has been more than ten days since I received news from Ettore. I received your letter; but not the package. . . Thank Mr. Lugatini for his card which I received. . . I thank you for your letter which I received this morning.” Their era depended upon handwritten communications, yet this scrap is all we have from my grandfather during the war.
He later became an amateur artist, and I believe his cursive script bears a sense of this. Look at the elegant, decorative N in Natale (Christmas):
Or his capital M, seen here twice, scrolling like extravagant Corinthian columns:
See his signature—Cesare—bold and gliding, as if he learned penmanship from John Hancock, then finally punching a small hole in the paper:
In the late 1920s, he emigrated to New York City, where for several decades he owned a pastry shop. The same artistry decorated Italian cakes with ornate flowers, salutations, and icing. And decades after that, he began painting, mainly playful scenes in the countryside or on beaches. Here’s one from Christmas 1983, sixty-seven years and an impossible world away from the trenches:
And here’s the same flowing script on a Christmas note from 1981. He gave me a box of silver coins, wishing “a silvery Christmas for our golden grandson.” He gave a poetic blessing of “happiness. . . health. . . affection and love,” followed by the best wish for any twelve-year old boy: “Have fun.” A complete contrast from the poverty and peril of his Christmas 1916.
On Christmas 1916, he mainly was homesick: “One thing I want to tell you: maybe the newspapers will publish that the soldiers at the front spent a Christmas filled with cheer– don’t believe it. This day for us has been even sadder because we thought of years gone by, because we remembered when we were still little how on Christmas eve we would go to bed early, to await during the night the arrival of the Baby Jesus, and now to pass the time we think and we remember with pleasure those lovely days. Thus seated all along the trenches we spent the whole night remembering. . .”
He mentioned that he had received no pay for thirty-six days, inquired about other letters and packages, and reminded his brother Enrico “to be careful of what he does.” Then he signed off, “Sending you kisses to all, I remain your loved one, Cesare.”
Written Christmas Day 1916, the letter arrived to my mother in the 1990s, from her Italian relatives. She gave it to me on Christmas 2002, and now on Christmas 2016 it’s broadcast everywhere via the Internet. An amazing journey for a lonely soldier’s holiday message, one century ago.
(Note: this is a slightly updated version of an essay written in December 2014, re-posted to mark the hundred year anniversary.)