Tuesday 24 November 2020

cf Wartime Christmases

 I was only seven years old when the Second World War ended in 1945 so my memories are probably more attuned to the immediate post-war years than the war years themselves.  Nevertheless I think they make a valuable comparison to what so many of our population feel is their entitlement today.

I can recall no great family gatherings on Christmas Day.  My father had four brothers and two sisters, my mother one brother, all living within easy reach. All but the two sisters had families.  However our Christmas Day was very much a matter of the nuclear family, though that included my maternal grandmother, who was widowed and lived with us.

 We did not have turkey for dinner, or chicken, which was still a luxury food.  Instead, we had pork, which my father would praise as "like a bit of chicken."  I have no recollection of Christmas crackers.  Maybe they weren't available, or maybe my parents regarded them as a frivolous  luxury.

 There were presents, and they must have been substantial, or at least bulky, since my sister and I both hung up pillow cases rather than stockings for Santa Claus to fill.  The prized gift was still reckoned to be the orange at the bottom of the sack.

 There wasn't a lot of time to gloat over the contents of the sack on Christmas Morning as I was a member of the Church Choir  and our fist job was  sing carols round the wards of the local hospital.

 Our choir master was called Mr Pride. However the hospital matron  caused  us all to giggle by referring to him as Mr Proudlove.  This error was never corrected over the years.  Maybe it was meant to be a joke.

 After our stint at the hospital we ran the mile or so down the hill to Church for the major morning service at 10.45.  This was the fourth of the day. There would have been a Midnight Mass but we choirboys didn't sing at that.  The choir men would have, and I suppose Mr Pride would have played the organ.  (I now realise what a hero he was.)  There would have  been a said Communion at 8 o'clock and a Sung Communion at 09.15.  Who played the organ for that I can't remember.  The singing was supported by a small group of ladies.

 Our 11.15 service was a "double."  We first sang Matins up to and including the collects, then segued seamlessly into a full Choral Communion.  Then it was home for the pork dinner with apple sauce  followed by Christmas Pudding (bought not home-made).

 I presume there was a Christmas Day radio broadcast by the King but I can't recall our ever tuning in to it.  Time at last for toys. If Christmas Day happened  on a Sunday it would be back to Church for Evensong at 06.30

Every  Boxing Day Batley played Dewsbury in the local Rugby League Derby,  though I don't suppose that actually continued during the war. My father used to take me in later years and I disappointed him by never becoming a fan.

 By writing this I'm not trying to emulate Monte Python and the famous competition as to who had the most deprived upbringing, but  merely to provide a contrast to present  expectations.  

My family Christmas was luxurious compared with those whose fathers were in the forces.  Mine was not "called up,"  partly because he was too old, and also because as  spinner in a woollen mill his occupation was "reserved."  We in the Heavy Woollen District specialised in making the heavy cloth for the uniforms of the armed forces.  (In the Crimean War we made them for both sides).  

But thousands of children didn't see their fathers for up to five years.  Similarly for many sweethearts and wives, and parents who didn't see their sons and daughters. Contact of a sort was maintained by the BBC "Home Service" which linked up with "Forces Radio" with "Two Way Family favourites."

It's worth also remembering that the Christmas Holiday for workers was just two days (one I believe in Scotland, because New Year's Day was also a holiday for them, though it wasn't in England  until 1974.) It is a measure of the economic progress we have made that we now regard the entire Christmas to New Year period as "the holiday" and some even stretch it to a fortnight.

However, the present pandemic is by far and away the most serious crisis mainland UK has experienced since 1945.  

 Prime Minister Johnson likes wartime analogies.  This week we've already had "the scientific cavalry" and "a final push".  There can be no doubt that if the lockdown rules are relaxed over the two days of Christmas (or five?) this will cause an increase in infections.  The ones who become carriers may not suffer seriously but some will inevitably pass the disease on to the more vulnerable who will.  This will equally inevitably lead to a post-Christmas spike in serious illnesses and deaths, and a further strain on the NHS staff who are already close to exhaustion.

So It is no great sacrifice to ask us, for this year only, to abandon our collective winter "knees-up" and substitute a quieter nuclear family observance instead.  The aim should be that as many of us as possible survive for Christmas next year.

Will our government have the courage to take this decision, or will they yet again, be guided not by "the science" but their focus groups?


  1. It doesn't sound like your Christmas was a 'quieter nuclear family observance' at all. A hospital visit, three church services, rugby on Boxing Day? This year people would give their teeth for even half that amount of pure human contact. I wish I could imagine I would be at a Christmas morning service this year as usual, and you're trying to claim it's not so bad by saying you had three?

    The wartime analogies all miss that what got people through the Blitz — as I understand it, though I wasn't there — was community. The very thing that made life bearable under the threat of war — the very thing that makes life worth living — is what people are being asked to give up now.

    And that is a great sacrifice. It may be a necessary sacrifice, as the coronavirus clearly spreads much better in the colder months. But it is absolutely a very very very great one.

    1. I admit that my self-indulgent excursion into the life and times of the 1940s choirboy enables those who want to to miss the essential point of the post. That is the a nuclear family Christmas was not unusual and that for many it lacked such key figures as fathers, sons and daughters (and possibly sometimes mothers and wives) who were away on active service, often for several Christmases in succession.

      To ask for similar constraints in the "war" against Covid is not unreasonable. Instead the government has permitted indoor meetings of up to three households with no limit on numbers or distances travelled, and no requirement for social distancing. As one scientist has pointed out, this is akin to pouring petrol on the Covid fire. More people will become ill, many will die, and the NHS staff, already close to exhaustion, will be subjected to even further strain.

    2. To ask for similar constraints in the "war" against Covid is not unreasonable

      Is it reasonable? There's certainly an argument.

      Is it 'no great sacrifice'? Absolutely not.

      People may not have seen their closest family members — parents, children, siblings — for eight months, and aren't going to be able to see them for another three or four at the earliest. To give up seeing them at Christmas, when that almost certainly means going an entire year at least without even setting eyes on those you love, is no small thing. How many years do most of us get? Eighty? That's not a lot, when you think about it. You're talking about keeping people apart form those closest to them for 12.5% of their entire life. And you claim that's 'no great sacrifice'?

      So if you want people to make a very great sacrifice, don't tell them, 'it's no great sacrifice' when it so obviously is. Acknowledge the sheer magnitude of the sacrifice you're demanding, rather than belittling it.

    3. Sorry, decimal point error: 1.25%. Still a lot, when you consider the IFR of coronavirus is 0.7% and that's, well, it's pretty bad.

    4. And the children and wives in the war who didn't see their parents/husbands for up to five years?

  2. And the children and wives in the war who didn't see their parents/husbands for up to five years?

    Were also making a very great sacrifice. I wonder if you'd been around then, would you have dismissed their sacrifice too as you do now? 'Don't you know there's a war on, not seeing your loved ones is not great sacrifice.'

    And if you did I wonder whether that would make them more or less likely to be well-disposed towards you when you asked them to make more sacrifices.

  3. I really can't see the point you are making. I was around then, though that is not relevant. I have enough empathy to realise that the inconvenience we are asked to experience now (missing out on one conventional Christmas so that more of us live to see the next one) is trivial by comparison

    1. I have enough empathy to realise that the inconvenience we are asked to experience now (missing out on one conventional Christmas so that more of us live to see the next one) is trivial by comparison

      If you really think not seeing those you love for a year or more is 'trivial' then you can't have that much empathy.

      Yes, during the war a husband or a son might have been missing for longer than one year (though we still don't know how long this will go on). But on the other hand, the rest of the family could, and did, get together to comfort each other — exactly the meagre crumbs of human comfort that you would apparently like to see banned this year.

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