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Christmas on the Home Front
By Mike Brown
The History PressCopyright © 2013 Mike Brown
All rights reserved.
— 1939 —
The First Wartime Christmas
Christmas 1939 was in many ways like a pre-war Christmas. There were, of course, emergency restrictions in place that affected the seasonal festivities, particularly the blackout regulations which made the traditional sight of Christmas trees decked with coloured lights, glimpsed through street windows, a thing of the past. One advert ran: 'As dusk falls, the fairy lights on the Christmas tree outside St Paul's Cathedral will go out ... we must await Victory to again see them at night in all their colours.' The delights of Christmas shopping were somewhat muted as the classic Yuletide shop window displays were unlit by night and obscured by anti-blast tape by day. Shopkeepers complained loudly that the blackout restrictions were curtailing trade, and on 2 December the Ministry of Home Security approved a device to help them. It took the form of a light in a special container, which threw its illumination either up or down and inwards, illuminating shop window displays without casting reflections in the street.
Window-shopping wasn't the only thing affected by the blackout. In the four months between the outbreak of war and the first wartime Christmas around 4,000 civilians were killed on the roads, compared with just 2,500 for the corresponding period in 1938. And this was despite petrol rationing. On 3 September it had been announced that each motorist would be allowed between 4 and 10 gallons of petrol a month, depending on the horsepower of their car, beginning in that month. In December accidents claimed 1,155 lives, the highest figure since records were kept. In Birmingham the number of accidents was up by 81 per cent, while in Glasgow the figure trebled. The government, however, remained adamant that this was all the fault of stupidly careless pedestrians.
Money was tight. In order to raise the £2 billion towards the cost of the war, the Chancellor, Sir John Simon, had introduced his War Budget on 27 September. This raised the standard rate of tax from 5s6d to 7s 6d in the pound, at the same time reducing the married man's allowance and imposing a 10 per cent increase in estate duty. It was expected that, for the nation's sake, everyone would grin and bear increases of 1d a pint on beer, 1s 6d a bottle on whisky, 1d a packet on cigarettes, 2s per lb on tobacco, and 1d per lb on sugar, with the cost of all these increases being borne entirely by the consumer. All trades benefiting from the war were to pay an excess profits tax of 60 per cent; this was partly in response to the public outcry at the huge price increases that had quickly followed the declaration of war, and partly in an attempt to crack down on the type of profiteering that had been rife in the First World War. Actually, after an initial steep rise the prices of most goods had quickly fallen again, almost back to normal, but as an extra guarantee the Chancellor undertook to subsidise certain essential commodities, such as bread, flour, meat and milk, in order to keep down prices. Yet in spite of this, the various tax rises meant hefty cuts in the amount of disposable income available to most, even for teetotal non-smokers.
The weather was very seasonal. Most of Britain, indeed much of western Europe, was carpeted in deep snow during a very cold December, which was followed by the coldest January in Britain for nearly half a century. An 8-mile stretch of the River Thames froze between Teddington and Sunbury, and the Serpentine Swimming Club's annual Christmas morning handicap had to be postponed as 'there was too much ice to permit the holding of a race under fair conditions'. Ada Pope of Margate described how 'the frost made the country look like a Christmas card', while William Dudley wrote:
It was cold. Frogs in ice-bound pools were having a cushy time compared with us. All brass monkeys were carefully transported inside and kept near the fire. The trees bore a load of ice. Even the grass stems were icicles. And to add to it all there was a fuel shortage.
The war news was good. The universally expected and much-feared mass raids by Göring's Luftwaffe had failed to materialise; rather than the hundreds of thousands of deaths that had been anticipated, in fact, by Christmas not a single British civilian had been killed by enemy bombing. What little German air activity there was, had been confined to Scotland; during December there had been attacks along the Firth of Forth on the 7th and the 22nd. There had also been some mine-laying activities around the south and east coasts of England.
Much of the foreign war news concerned the small Finnish army's stout defence against their vastly superior Russian opponents, but the newspapers also covered the arrival of various Commonwealth troops. There were flight crews from New Zealand, and troops from Cyprus (who had arrived in France), while in the week before Christmas the papers described the arrival of the first Canadian troops in Britain. At sea the Royal Navy was fighting in the Battle of the Atlantic: on 17 December the crew of the Graf Spee, one of Germany's new pocket battleships, had chosen to scuttle its vessel in Montevideo harbour rather than face the pursuing British ships.
For many households the Christmas celebrations were muted by the fact that so many people were absent. Fathers, brothers and sons were all serving their country somewhere in France: indeed, almost ½ million men were on active service by Christmas 1939. Sybil Morley's father was the rector of a very scattered country parish in Essex, about 7 miles from Colchester, a garrison town. She recalled:
Early wartime Christmases were spent surrounded by soldiers – there was an invitation to them to come and spend Christmas afternoon with us. We always went to church first of course, and we children were allowed to take one present with us.
In the afternoon the soldiers arrived. Some came by taxi, some cycled and some even walked. They all seemed to enjoy being in someone's home, chatting and eating whatever my mother could provide for them.
The government was keen that this should be a happy Christmas, in spite of the war. With puritanical zeal cinemas, theatres and other sources of entertainment had been shut down or had their opening hours restricted in the first few days of the war, but this was soon seen as a morale-sapping disaster. The authorities would not make the same mistake about Christmas; of course over-indulgence was to be discouraged, but people needed to know what they were fighting for, and Christmas, with all that it implied about tradition, family values, faith, neighbourliness, community, even peace on earth, was just the thing. Magazines, newspapers and radio articles all stressed the point.
In an article in Woman's Own on 23 December Rosita Forbes argued that making this a good Christmas was almost a duty:
Remember there are lots and lots of happy Christmases ahead. You can be utterly sure of that ... We're all working, you see, for the same great purpose and it is just as much as a crusade – against nations which have no use for Christmas because they have 'abolished God' – as that which Christ fought for us ... Your faith, your laughter and your certainty of good in the end, can make this Christmas as happy as any other ... There is only one front. We're manning it shoulder to shoulder. When the war is won, the effort of every woman – yours and mine and your neighbour's – will have contributed to the victory ... Let's have all the ammunition for the Christmas front that we can afford.
But not everyone was in the mood for a happy Christmas. The editorial of the Guider magazine that December began:
So many people have said to me lately that they could not bring themselves to think of Christmas, not only because, this year, for many of us Christmas must be a reminder of other happier times, not only because many of us will be alone among strangers, separated from our families, anxious about people we love who may be in danger, but for a bigger, more unselfish reason. They cannot bear to think of Christmas because this year so much that they believed in has been broken.
Woman's Own addressed the point about absent friends and family:
Are you looking forward to Christmas? Yes I know, in some ways it's going to be awfully different; but it is going to be Christmas perhaps more than ever before ... For instance, I expect a good many of you won't be able to see the people who matter most to you this Christmas-time. And there'll be a corner in your heart that has an ache in it – but 'he' or 'she' or 'they' whom you miss have it too, and that brings you closer together. And you are both determined to make Christmas as cheery as possible for the people you do see.
As yet there was no food rationing. Many people remembered the serious shortages that had developed in the First World War, and there was general concern about profiteering. At first there were a few shortages, which the government addressed by a scheme known as 'pooling'. All supplies of certain items such as petrol and butter had to be put into a 'pool', and sold as a single, and therefore more controllable, product, using names such as 'national butter'. Some people had already begun hoarding various items, and the government was not quite sure how to react to this. Certainly, if people were to lay down a small store of food to counter any future disruption of supply this would, within reason, be a good thing, as it would help to minimise the disruption caused. Yet at the same time over-storing would in itself cause shortages, which would bring about panic-buying and profiteering. The public were advised to lay in a small store, and were even given lists of appropriate goods, yet this could not fully control the issue. The fear of missing out, or of not providing properly for your family, especially when other people were known to be amassing large stocks, drove many who could afford it to get what they could, especially if there was a hint that this or that item would soon be unobtainable.
In October the newspapers had speculated that meat and butter would soon be rationed. Eventually the government bowed to the inevitable and on 29 November the Minister of Food, W.S. Morrison, announced that the rationing of butter and bacon would commence on 8 January, and in the meantime self-discipline and restraint were the order of the day – officially. But since people were aware that rationing would be introduced just after Christmas, few took any notice. Most took the opportunity to splurge before rationing was introduced; hotels were fully booked over the festive season, as were restaurants. Woman's Pictorial magazine spoke for many: 'One of the best things about Christmas is all the lovely things we have to eat – a greedy thought perhaps, but I think it is one that most people have. Why we don't have plum puddings, turkey and mince pies at other times of the year I don't know.' A Stork margarine advertisement from that Christmas read: 'What if there is a war on? Christmas parties mustn't be called off on that account! There'll be your men on leave to be entertained, your National Service workers needing relaxation. And cooking won't be difficult – not now you can get Stork again, as much of it as you want.' It went on to give recipes for Christmas trifle and mince pies, using 'wartime mincemeat'.
Many Christmas recipes published in women's magazines that December would soon seem lavish as shortages and rationing began to bite. Typical of this extravagance was the recipe for Christmas pudding printed in Woman's Weekly. The ingredients for this included sugar, suet and margarine, all rationed in 1940, and egg, milk and dried fruit, all put on distribution schemes in 1940 and 1941. Even the breadcrumbs and flour would have to be National Wheatmeal after 1941. The following recipes, both from 1939, should be compared with ones from later in the war to show how deeply rationing was to affect Britain.
Woman's Own carried recipes for unboiled marzipan, with directions for making marzipan holly and fruits, jelly, Christmas pudding, iced mince pies, trifle and shortbread. They also gave instructions for a complete Christmas dinner consisting of 'clear soup, roast turkey with chestnut and forcemeat stuffing, bread sauce, baked potatoes and Brussels sprouts or celery, Christmas pudding or mince pies'.
The Christmas tree, having been introduced in Victorian times, had by now become firmly rooted (excuse the pun) in the traditional British Christmas. On the outbreak of war wood was one of the first items to suffer supply restrictions, but a spokesman for the state forests let it be known that there would be no shortage of Christmas trees that year.
Henry Bailey wrote: 'The curtains were drawn and the fairy lamps at the top of the Christmas tree were the only lights. Their red, blue, yellow and green hues shone out and glistened on the tinsel and the silver bells, and it looked very nice in the dark.' By now strings of coloured electric lights were available, though many people still used candles. Maureen Salmon wrote: 'Our nursery looked lovely with trails of ivy and holly and with lighted Chinese lanterns.'
A few of the products that were available in late 1939 would soon disappear altogether. For example, some companies were still advertising indoor fireworks that year. Ernie Prowse recalled:
Auntie Win always had a lot of Christmas fireworks which must have cost a lot of money. One in particular stays with me; it was a round black thing about two inches high with a touch paper. When you lit it, it would start off with smoke coming out, then it would suddenly send out a long black snake-like thing which would go on for a long time. In the end it would be about three feet long. The only problem was it would give off a lot of smoke and really stink!
Paul Fincham recalled:
There was still a good deal of pre-war sort of stuff around. I'd been sent to stay with friends of my parents in Norfolk from September until just before Christmas. I well remember going to do my Christmas shopping at Woolworth's in Diss before going home to my parents, and you could buy almost anything that you'd have bought in peacetime. I bought, for 6d, a box of those tiny crackers to put on a Christmas tree, and a packet of paper napkins, also 6d, and similar things.
An advertising campaign encouraged people to buy French food and drink, Alsatian wines, kirsch, cognac, cheeses and the like. One of the more bizarre aspects of that first wartime Christmas was that so many of the troops with the British Expeditionary Force in France, especially the officers, received parcels from home packed with the sort of French produce they themselves could buy in the local shops.
Woman's Own had its own suggestions:
There's a lot we can do to cheer the troops ... For instance, here's an idea for mothers and sweethearts and wives who've already heaped the usual home comforts on their particular bit of the Forces. You know it's far more difficult for the authorities to keep the boys from getting bored in their time off than it is to supply food and clothing. So Woman's Own has arranged for the two main male hobbies – reading and darts – to be carried on even in the most obscure trench in the lines.
We'll send to any address you like to give a parcel containing super Christmas numbers of five men's magazines, a set of darts in a case and a charming little Christmas card bearing your name – all for 3s 6d.
Woman's Pictorial suggested various presents for servicemen:
Of course, you can do other things but knit for your man. Send him his favourite boiled sweets, or jam, biscuits, chutney, plum cake, either that you have made him or bought for him. ... You know there will be times when he is billeted in a village or in reach of a village, and of course you want him to do you credit among your French neighbours. He can't look spruce without shaving cream, spare razor blades, and toilet soap (large tablets and not highly scented or he'll be called a cissy).
Even if he went off with your photo in his pocket, send him a new one just to show you haven't changed. Send it in a wallet where he can keep his paper money, and it's a good idea to line the wallet with jaconet as this is gas-resisting. He'd love snaps of the kiddies, the dog, the house under snow and the first chrysanthemums in the garden, too. ... And now a last idea. On Christmas Day save one of everything from the table. A mince pie, a piece of Christmas Cake, a motto from a cracker (see that it's a nice one), a ribbon from your dress – and send it to him just to show you were thinking about him and wishing he were with you.
Excerpted from Christmas on the Home Front by Mike Brown. Copyright © 2013 Mike Brown. Excerpted by permission of The History Press.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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Table of Contents
1. 1939: The First Wartime Christmas Christmas Among the Evacuees,
2. 1940: The Second Christmas The Christmas Raids,
3. 1941: The Third Christmas Christmas in the Countryside,
4. 1942: The Fourth Christmas Christmas Weddings,
5. 1943: The Fifth Christmas Parties,
6. 1944: The Last Wartime Christmas,