Christmas preparations are now in full swing
So here we are again – Christmas is coming, and the goose is getting fat. The usual round of merry office parties and family gatherings is a heartbeat away, mountains of carefully wrapped gifts are appearing in our homes once more and you can almost hear the ritual unbuckling of belts as lavish, fulsome spreads of festive fare start taking their toll on our waistlines.
After a period when Christmas cheer felt thin on the ground, thanks to the pandemic, the decorations have gone up earlier than ever this year, and the festive spirit is now very much upon us.
Dickens’ Victorian Christmas persevered
Our modern-day approach to celebrating Christmas appears enshrined in our culture. It is, however, a relatively new phenomenon. Many of us are familiar with the traditional Victorian Christmas so vividly described by Charles Dickens, but things were not so different even as late as the middle of the twentieth century, as testified by our LifeBook Memoirs authors.
Many of our 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 still attend church at this time of year, it is certainly not the mandatory outing that it was 80 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.
Until 1954, rationing was in force
Perhaps the biggest difference that authors talk about time and again when relating their life stories is how little everyone had. Rationing was in force during the war, and it continued until 1954. This meant that many foodstuffs were simply not available. The traditional satsuma, if one could be found at all, would have been seen as an impossibly exotic treat, and substitutes had to be found for the foods we consider essential to the modern Christmas meal. Incredibly, in 1943, the Ministry of Food estimated that only 1 family in 10 would be sitting 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, and Christmas pudding was virtually unavailable. Christmas cakes and mince pies were out too, 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 …
When it came to entertainment, in contrast to watching the television spectaculars, films and popular dramas of today, families followed their Christmas dinners with a game or two of cards and parlour games such as charades. Others 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 1932 by King George V that has continued into the present day.
Christmas didn’t look the same
Of course, Christmas wouldn’t be Christmas without decorations. Nowadays, not only do we flock to garden centres and stores for the best trees and baubles that money can buy, but many people also lavishly decorate the exterior of their homes. During the war years, a tree of some sort might not have been too much of a problem to source, especially in rural locations, but decorations usually had to be made at home from scraps of paper and fabric. Extensive use was made of greenery that could be gathered easily – holly, in particular, along with evergreens that could be dipped in Epsom salts for a frosted effect. Due to the wartime blackout, festive lighting was severely restricted, and, in any case, some homes were still without a reliable source of electricity even as late as the 1940s.
The phrase ‘make do and mend’ was on everyone’s lips
Unlike the expensive presents given today, wartime gifts were usually modest. Often, as with decorations, they were homemade and almost always practical. The phrase ‘make do and mend’ was on everyone’s lips and, therefore, many gifts were created from discarded and broken items, either by repairing them or by using salvaged parts to create something new, such as making a stuffed toy from an old jumper.
Christmas is a time when families come together
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. 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 who were overseas, fighting, there was added anxiety, and, of course, there was the huge sadness for some that came from the knowledge that their loved ones would never be returning to them.
Many of our authors vividly remember those days
Wartime Christmases can seem a world away, and yet those days are still well within living memory. Many LifeBook Memoirs authors vividly remember them. Perhaps surprisingly, for those of us who’ve grown up accustomed to the modern-day Christmas, they invariably say that 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 that allow current and future generations to glimpse how much lives have changed over the years. Perhaps just as importantly, however, they also record for posterity a unique era in our modern social history.
Written by Halima Crabtree, LifeBook Memoirs editor