This year, with Covid-19 restrictions still in place, Christmas will be a little different. In contrast to the usual large parties and ‘open houses’, gatherings will be limited to three households meeting over a five-day period. Nevertheless, the celebrations will take place, albeit on a smaller scale, while gifts small and large will be given and lavish festive fare consumed just as in any other year, as is clearly evidenced by the busy high streets and shops following the easing of the November lockdown. Furthermore, perhaps as a reaction to the difficult year that is soon to be behind us, the decorations have gone up earlier than ever and the festive spirit is very much upon us.
While this approach to celebrating Christmas appears enshrined in our culture, it is in reality a relatively new phenomenon, as testified by our LifeBook authors. We are all well aware of the traditional Victorian Christmas, so vividly described by Dickens, but even by the middle of the 20th century, things were not so different.
Many of our LifeBook authors grew up during the Second World War and, in their memoirs they describe the typical Christmas celebrations of the time. One clear difference between then and now is attendance of the Christmas church service. While many people today do attend church at this time of year, it is certainly not the mandatory outing that it was 70 years ago. Back then, the parish church was the focal point for many communities and an important part of its role was not only providing the chance for local people to meet up with friends but also helping them to think about the real meaning of Christmas.
However, perhaps the biggest difference that authors talk about time and again when relating their life stories is how little everyone had. Of course, during the war and until 1954, rationing was in force, which meant that many foodstuffs were simply unavailable. The traditional satsuma, if one could be found, would have been seen as an exotic treat, and for the foods we consider essential to the modern Christmas meal, substitutes had to be found. Incredibly, in 1943, the Ministry of Food estimated that only one family in 10 would have sat down to turkey or goose and, in fact, many struggled to have any form of meat at all. Colourful vegetables, such as beetroot and carrot, were relied on to give the meal a celebratory appearance, while Christmas pudding was virtually unavailable, as were Christmas cakes and mince pies due to the difficulty in obtaining dried fruit, eggs and sugar. Nevertheless, wartime housewives rose to the challenge and managed to provide adequate alternatives, often using the most unlikely of ingredients.
When it came to entertainment, in contrast to watching the television spectaculars, films and popular dramas of today, following the meal, families would have played cards and parlour games such as charades, or gathered around the piano for a singalong. Those with the luxury of a wireless could enjoy listening to the BBC’s special Christmas Day broadcast, the highlight of which was the sovereign’s speech, a popular tradition started in 1939 by King George VI that has remained to the present day.
Of course, Christmas wouldn’t be Christmas without decorations and, nowadays, not only do we flock to garden centres and stores for the best trees and baubles, but many people also lavishly decorate the exterior of their homes. During the war years, while a tree of some sort might not have been too much of a problem to source, especially in rural locations, decorations were usually homemade from scraps of paper and fabric, and extensive use was made of greenery that could be easily gathered, in particular holly and evergreens that could be dipped in Epsom salts for a frosted effect. Due to the blackout, festive lighting was severely restricted and, in any case, even as late as the 1940s, some homes were still without a reliable source of electricity.
Unlike the expensive presents given today, during the war, gifts were usually modest, often, as with the decorations, homemade and almost always practical. The phrase ‘make do and mend’ was on everyone’s lips and therefore many gifts would be created from discarded or broken items, either by repairing them or by using the salvaged parts to create something new, such as making a stuffed toy from an old jumper.
However, perhaps the biggest difference between a modern and a wartime Christmas is the people. Today, Christmas is a time when families come together, often travelling great distances to do so. During the war, this simply wasn’t possible for many. Children were evacuated to areas far from their homes (quite often separated from their siblings) and transport was generally difficult – public transport was slow and there were few cars on the roads and for those that were, petrol was severely rationed. This meant that, for many families, there was often little option other than to spend Christmas apart. For those with male relatives overseas fighting, there was added anxiety, and, of course, for some there was the huge sadness that came from the knowledge that their loved ones would never be returning to them.
When talking about Christmas during wartime, it seems a world away and yet it is an era well within living memory. Many of our LifeBook authors vividly remember those days but invariably they say they felt no sense of deprivation at the time because it was all they had ever known and, of course, it was the same for everyone. These wartime memories make for fascinating reading as our authors share their experiences with us. Within the pages of their autobiographies, they open little windows on the past to allow current and future younger generations to glimpse how much lives have changed. Perhaps just as importantly, however, they also record for posterity a unique era in our modern social history.
By Halima Crabtree, LifeBook Editor