(Not) Home for the Holidays: Milton Caniff’s Christmas Strips

Editor’s note: The following article was originally published in the Henderson (N.C.) Daily Dispatch.

By David Irvine

Comic strips aren’t always funny—sometimes they can even carry a serious message.

Terry and the Pirates, Dec. 25, 1944

Terry and the Pirates, Dec. 25, 1944 (click images throughout the article to enlarge)

During World War II, Milton Caniff interrupted the story line of his comic strip, Terry and the Pirates, to offer a Christmas tribute to the pilots ferrying supplies from India to our Chinese allies. On Dec. 25, 1944, his strip was titled “White Christmas—Himalayas Version.” It pictured a transport plane flying between snow-covered peaks. Caniff wrote that the pilots were doing their job so the folks back home “can look at the American sky and see nothing more dangerous than snow.”

That was the start of an annual tradition. Each year, Caniff devoted the Christmas installment of Terry—and later of his other creation, Steve Canyon—to a special message. He combined pictures and words into a continuous theme of support for our troops, acknowledging their sacrifices and remembering those who died–and relating it to the meaning of Christmas.

After the war, Caniff’s Christmas messages focused on returning veterans and those who didn’t return. In 1946 he pictured a wife gazing at her distracted husband and cautioned: “Don’t be too surprised if your particular good joe seems to be thinking of something else at times today. … But it is on occasions like this that the swiftly fading faces of men, who will never see another Christmas tree or hear a kid laugh, start to parade across his memory. … Give him the present of a little time with old friends who are being forgotten all too soon.”

Steve Canyon, Dec. 25, 1951

Steve Canyon, Dec. 25, 1951

Then suddenly there was another war–the Korean War–technically not a war at all, just a “police action” by the United Nations. But men were dying, even on Christmas Day. The Dec. 25, 1951, Steve Canyon strip shows four soldiers struggling through the snow. They tell us: “Our situation today is like when a big fire breaks out in a small town. … There’s a fire going on in the world right now and we happen to be the age group that gets the nod to answer the alarm. … Okay, that’s the way it goes. We’ll make it.”

Then between wars, Caniff turned to the fallen. On Christmas Day, 1955, he pictured a military cemetery and indirectly connected it with the Savior who was born and died years before: “These men would not have wished to dim your Christmas with sombre thoughts! They wanted you to be happy and free from fear. And wasn’t that the mission of a certain other Person who perished violently on a mountainside long ago, far from the town of his birth?”

And Caniff remembered those soldiers who survived the wars but were still dealing with the aftermath in veterans hospitals. In 1957 he wrote: “The men who are still paying off on the human price we paid for victory in the past would be grateful to know that they are not forgotten. … A visit from you to the nearest VA hospital will buy a lot of silver to line what can often be a very gray cloud.”

(To view the images below, click on the thumbnails.)

Terry and the Pirates, Dec. 25, 1946

Terry and the Pirates, Dec. 25, 1946

Steve Canyon, Dec. 25, 1947

Steve Canyon, Dec. 25, 1947

Steve Canyon, Dec. 25, 1948

Steve Canyon, Dec. 25, 1948

Steve Canyon, Dec. 25, 1950

Steve Canyon, Dec. 25, 1950

Steve Canyon, Dec. 25, 1951

Steve Canyon, Dec. 25, 1951

Steve Canyon, Dec. 25, 1952

Steve Canyon, Dec. 25, 1952

Steve Canyon, Dec. 25, 1953

Steve Canyon, Dec. 25, 1953

Steve Canyon, Dec. 25, 1954

Steve Canyon, Dec. 25, 1954

Steve Canyon, Dec. 25, 1956

Steve Canyon, Dec. 25, 1956

Steve Canyon, Dec. 25, 1957

Steve Canyon, Dec. 25, 1957

Steve Canyon, Dec. 25, 1959

Steve Canyon, Dec. 25, 1959

Steve Canyon, Dec. 25, 1961

Steve Canyon, Dec. 25, 1961

Steve Canyon, Dec. 25, 1962

Steve Canyon, Dec. 25, 1962

Steve Canyon, Dec. 25, 1965

Steve Canyon, Dec. 25, 1965

Steve Canyon, Dec. 25, 1967

Steve Canyon, Dec. 25, 1967

Steve Canyon, Dec. 25, 1968

Steve Canyon, Dec. 25, 1968

Steve Canyon, Dec. 25, 1970

Steve Canyon, Dec. 25, 1970

Steve Canyon, Dec. 25, 1971

Steve Canyon, Dec. 25, 1971

Steve Canyon, Dec. 25, 1974

Steve Canyon, Dec. 25, 1974

"Steve Canyon," Dec. 26, 1965 (image courtesy of OSU's cartoon library archives)

“Steve Canyon,” Dec. 26, 1965 (image courtesy of OSU’s cartoon library archives)

During the Cold War, Caniff honored the men and women carrying out lonely duties far from home. Addressing those service people on Dec. 25, 1959, he wrote: “How shall we ever know the number of Sarajevos, the Pearl Harbors, the Koreas that have been prevented by the mighty host of such lonely men as you, too many miles from all precious things at this holy time? Man can endure wracking tortures if he has hope. Just as this day is a symbol to great masses of devout Christians, so is the American flag and uniform a beacon of friendship to millions.”

Caniff also remembered the widows, the sometimes forgotten casualties of war. In 1962, he pictured a woman who lost her husband 20 years before: “You’re pretty good at keeping a company face, until some wisp of song or half-forgotten phrase unlocks old dreams.” Those are dreams they never had a chance to share.

And then still another war, this one in Vietnam. It became America’s most unpopular war, and anti-war sentiment caused a loss of readership for Steve Canyon, which featured a career-military leading character. But Caniff’s focus was on the people serving in the military, not the political issues.

Men were again dying to defend the nation in 1965 when he wrote: “For the missing faces at our festive board we’ll sound a Requiem, even as we do for another Warrior, who fought so long ago—and died violently—that men could Go In Peace.”

Caniff died in 1988. He didn’t live to see America at war in the Middle East. But many of the sentiments he expressed in his “comic” strips relate to the present. They can speak to us on this day, helping us remember our service personnel—those who returned whole or not so whole and those who didn’t return at all–even as we celebrate Peace on Earth.

Contact the writer at dirvine@hendersondispatch.com.

We hope you enjoyed this feature. Please check out our other Christmas features, here and here!

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