Wartime London and Exile Christmas

Christmas in London still exemplifies the experience of European governments-in-exile in London: Since 1947, every year, the large Christmas tree on Trafalgar Square is presented to the people of London by the city of Oslo, thanking them in an inscription “for their assistance during the years 1940-1945”,  for the refuge and assistance the Norwegian King Haakon VII., his government and many of his countrymen (as well as their fellow European governments-in-exile) were given during the years of the Second World War.

Living in exile included the experience of celebrating Christmas in a foreign city and country. Dates like this underlined the impression of feeling forlorn and foreign, of being an outsider. Holidays are usually filled with national or regional rituals, habits, food, songs, and are, of course, closely linked to spending it at home with family and friends. Wartime Christmas in London for European exiles meant that most of these features central to Christmas were lacking.

1940 was the first Christmas European governments-in-exile spent in London – and the first Christmas suffering from severe rationing of food. Afraid that the substantial bombing of the Blitz would go on though the holidays, many people spent Christmas eve in shelters. In the end, both sides suspended air raids for the holidays, but this short truce was followed by a massive air raid on 29 december 1940 leading to what was called the “Second Great Fire of London”.  By 1941, the wrapping of Christmas presents was made almost impossible on account of the rationing of paper. Decorations and presents were increasingly hard to come by and many relied on home-made choices using left-over scraps of paper or fabric, as Amanda Mason of the Imperial War Museum pointed out. War was omnipresent: rationing restricted opulent christmas meals; church bells rang for air raids, not for mass; warplanes and warships featured on the wish list of children, as the Ministry of Information depicted in a short propaganda film entitled “Christmas under Fire” (1941) which was meant to strengthen British spirit as well as to promote the British cause abroad, especially in the not yet involved United States. In Britain, radio broadcasts were an essential part of Christmas wartime traditions, with large parts of the British population tuning in to the BBC Christmas day broadcast (about 33 % in 1941 and 55% in 1944), exceeded in numbers only by the following Christmas speech by King George VI (over 60% in 1941 and many more in the following years). [1] The tradition was adapted by the leaders of the European governments-in-exile, such as Queen Wilhelmina of the Netherlands, General Sikorski, and others, who addressed their countrymen and -women with Christmas speeches over the radio.

Christmas, and its potentially cheerful, and care-free celebrations, were also used to raise morale and to strengthen the Allied spirit. A film in the collection of British Pathé entitled “ALLIED TROOPS CELEBRATE CHRISTMAS” shows various shots of British troops (the Royal Navy, convalescents, and others) as well as troops of the Allied forces (Belgians, Dutch) being served with Christmas dinner, followed by Christmas pudding and mince pies. Allied soldiers can be seen eating, drinking beer and dancing. Later on in the short film, a group of Dutch army officers toasts Queen Wilhelmina in front of a picture of the Dutch Monarch.

British and Allied families alike shared the war experience of living in the bombed city and many fathers and sons were fighting the war abroad. In this picture, a young Winston Churchill junior (grandchild to the Prime Minister) receives a book of nursery rhymes at a Christmas party for Allied officers.

 

 

For the European exiles, the hardships of rationing and the constant fear of bombing were aggravated by a longing and worrying for home and family – and often lead to the wish to keep up national traditions even when abroad.

Both tendencies can be found in the description of Polish Christmas eve celebrations in 1941 at the Rubens Hotel in Victoria, seat of the Polish Headquarters during the war. The Rubens, ‘in peacetime [..] a comfortable family hotel’, had been adapted to its new tasks, and decorated with the Polish flag, eagle, and a portrait of Sikorski, but in December 1941 also with artwork and Polish Christmas decorations. Among the people present were Polish military and political staff, but also their families and priests. Henrey depicts details of the decorations and customs, in particular everything differing from British traditions. The custom of bread breaking is referred to as “one of the most picturesque in any part of Europe’, here as a bread breaking between friends, but also between ‘a sailor, a soldier, and an airman’. The habit of a “fasting” Christmas dinner without any meat, but rich in fish, beetroot, cabbage, mushrooms and poppy seeds  leaves a mark. All in all, despite all decorations and carol singen, the author desribes the celebrations as “colourful rather than gay”. Christmas, the description insinuates, was also a strong reminder of home and family far away, of the danger that might threaten them. Accordingly, dinner talk also referred to these sombre topics. Christmas, usually labelled the most joyous time of the year, on the one hand brought a diversion from the realities of war, but on the other hand it also accentuated all the hardship, privation, threat and fear that came with it. [2] 

For the European exiles, celebrating Christmas in London meant enjoying distraction and celebrating survival, encouraging a defiant spirit and hope, while at the same time embracing mourning and fear. As this antagonism was inherent in the life of the exiled, donating Christmas Norwegian trees to London (and other British cities) as a sign of gratitude for support during the war years makes a fitting symbol.

References:

[1] Thomas Hajkowski, The BBC and National Identity. 1922-1953. OUP 2010, p. 96.

[2] Robert Henrey, ‘A Village in Piccadilly’, Temple Press: London 1942, pp. 69-75. (A wartime description of London written under the name of British journalist Robert Henrey but more likely written by his French journalist wife Madeleine Henrey.)

picture/film references:

Christmas Tree on Trafalgar Square 1947: Fotograf: Ukjent; Arkivreferanse: Riksarkivet, Pa0722_I1_1947_003,  https://www.flickr.com/photos/national_archives_of_norway/6432135131/

‘Father Christmas’ presenting Winston Churchill’s grandson with a gift at a Christmas party for Allied naval officers’ children. Imperial War Museum Collection A 13308http://www.iwm.org.uk/history/how-britain-celebrated-christmas-during-the-second-world-war

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