On Oct. 4, 1943, Bing Crosby recorded “I’ll Be Home for Christmas”, and within a month the song was well on its way to becoming a classic.
World War II had been raging for more than four years, and the song—with its lovely evocation of a peaceful, happy holiday back home, and the bittersweet final line “I’ll be home for Christmas, if only in my dreams”—must have struck a chord with the hundreds of thousands of people who were far from home, fighting in foreign lands, and had no hope of being back there, or seeing family and friends, soon.
One of those people far from home, that Christmas of 1943, was 29-year-old Jimmy Tofin of Ashcroft. He had joined the army in 1942, and ended up spending time in 12 different countries during his four years of service. In late 1943 he swept down through Italy as part of the Allied push in that country, and just before Christmas found himself in the central Italian city of Avellino.
What did Jimmy make of the ancient city, so different to the town he was from, thousands of miles away? There would have been no snow or mistletoe in Avellino, but it was probably the Christmas trees Jimmy missed most, for he had had a Christmas tree cutting business near Ashcroft between 1933 and his enlistment in 1942. There would be no Christmas tree for Jimmy Tofin that year; nevertheless, he set out so see what this new place held.
Avellino had borne the brunt of Allied bombing raids in the area in Sept. 1943, and the city, which had boasted a pre-War population of 20,000, had been pounded into a shadow of its former self. As Jimmy wandered the city on Christmas Eve day, he found that the streets and homes were deserted; only an old dog could be seen, looking for something to eat.
Large bomb craters pockmarked the streets, which were blocked by piles of debris. Many buildings were shell-torn and damaged to different degrees, while others had been completely flattened. Houses and shops stood open to the elements, their doors blown off, and Jimmy ventured into one of the homes. Pots over the fireplace contained food, and the table was set for a meal; but the inhabitants had clearly left in a hurry when the bombing started, to take shelter with other townsfolk in the nearby hills, and had not returned. Jimmy estimated that the population of Avellino now, excluding the soldiers, was less than a dozen people.
As he looked down one of the side streets Jimmy saw two of those inhabitants, and moved towards them. When he got closer he saw they were a boy and a girl, with pinched and dirty faces and shabby, torn clothing. The girl was slightly bigger than the boy, and held his hand protectively, more like a mother than like the older sister she clearly was. When Jimmy wished the pair a cheerful “Merry Christmas!” the boy buried his face in his sister’s dress. The girl gazed at Jimmy for a moment, then said in good English, “You got chocolate for my brother?”
Well, a guy didn’t go around with his pockets full of chocolate, and Jimmy felt bad that he didn’t have any. However, he had what he thought was a good answer ready.
“Santa Claus will bring you lots on Christmas Eve,” he promised. The girl responded by pulling her brother closer and shook her head.
“We in Italy do not have a Santa Claus like you do in Canada and America,” she replied, to Jimmy’s surprise. He’d always thought that old Santa Claus was known all the world over.
He was even more surprised by the girl’s English, and she explained that her father had taught her. “He and my mother were killed by one of your bombs,” she added matter-of-factly, pointing to where a doorway had once led to a basement. A deathly smell still hung over the area, and even though Jimmy had not been responsible for the bombing he felt bad.
“Do you mean to say that the kids out here don’t have any Santa Claus or Christmas trees at Christmas time?” he asked, thinking that it was time someone did something about that.
“We have the Befana,” the girl replied. When Jimmy looked puzzled, she explained, “The Befana is a good fairy who on Epiphania—the 6th of January—fills the little boys’ and girls’ stockings with good things.”
“What is the Befana going to put in your stocking?” Jimmy asked, then wondered if the children even had stockings. The little boy shook his head.
“No,” he said, then added, “Befana Fascista morto.” (“The Fascists killed Befana.”)
Jimmy tried to cheer the children up. “Befana no morto.” (“Santa Claus wasn’t dead.”)
“Si, si,” the boy said sadly. “Befana morto, boom, boom!”
Jimmy felt sorry for the children; but there didn’t seem to be much that he could do for them. It was getting dark, too, and he needed to get back to the building where he was quartered. Exploding shells at nearby Cassino gave enough light that he could pick his way through the rubble, and when he got back he found that the Christmas Eve celebration was well on its way.
Poker was being played; Christmas songs were being sung; and there was more than enough vino to go around. One soldier had hung up a sock with a note, asking Santa for one Canadian blonde (“5’2”, eyes of blue”), a case of Johnny Walker, and a set of discharge papers. He’d added, as a PS, “I want to go home.”
The sock reminded Jimmy of the two children, who had no Santa Claus to bring them gifts. But perhaps, with a little help from his faraway home—a home Jimmy Tofin would see only in his dreams that Christmas—he could do something about that.
And so it was that Befana—who was not dead—did not forget those two children in Avellino. They received a towel, two bars of soap, bread, corn beef, hard tack, and some chocolate, which had come in an Elk’s Soldiers Comfort parcel all the way from Ashcroft, B.C. to Avellino, Italy, that long-ago Christmas in 1943.