A Norfolk Christmas, WWII-style

As we’ve now got less than 10 days until Christmas, we are thinking about Christmases past here at the Memorial Library.  Christmas in Norfolk during the Second Word War was very different than today’s. Shops full of mince pies, Christmas sales and notices to order foods for your Christmas feasts were missing; ration books and a large dose of ingenuity and creativity were employed to make this time of year special.

bookcoverThings have changed since then for many reasons, but some things are still the same. The Christmas meal, the Christmas tree and time with loved ones were as important then as they are now. Not many of us have our own memories of Christmas 70 years ago, but one of the books we have in the 2nd Air Division Memorial Library is Wartime Childhood Memories: 1939 – 1945. We have selected some excerpts from this compilation to illustrate what Christmas was like 70 years ago.

Every single mention of Christmas also mentions food. During rationing you can imagine hungry young children often thinking about food, especially sweets and other treats that were hard to come by. For some families, sweets and other things were tricky to find and Christmas could be a challenge. For Hazel Eltringham and her family it could be a difficult time of year:

We had a really hard time at Christmas. We had three nuts and maybe an apple if it was possible. One hanky and a doll the size of our big finger but a lot of love which we thought was better than gifts. (p 33-34)

Other families received gifts and goodies, including cake, and Elsie Lloyd remembers these fondly:

Christmas time we always had a goose from the farm for dinner and used to cut a Holly tree with berries from a nearby wood called Crow Green. My aunt, who lived in London, used to send a parcel of goodies that she managed to get and a lovely Christmas cake (homemade). I can’t remember having many presents only reading books some of which I have two this day. One year we had some white and pink sugar mice to hang on the tree and then my cousins came to call my dad gave them all to them. He wasn’t very popular with us I can tell you! (p73)

For other families Christmas was something they saved for all year. Brian Staff remembers his father getting a young cockerel in the spring and the family saving food off their dinner plates for the rest of the year to fatten it up. Some families were able to get a chicken or a goose, and they considered themselves lucky as these could be a rare treat. Cakes and puddings were made from saved rations. Patricia Everson remembers her excitement at Christmas, with special foods and coming downstairs to see the Christmas decorations:

At Christmas, if you were lucky, the family had a chicken. This was a rare treat. The Christmas tree and decorations did not go up until after the children had gone to bed on Christmas Eve. I can still remember the excitement as I opened the door at the bottom of the stairs to hear the paper decorations rustling and see the Christmas tree. All the cakes and puddings were homemade with rations saved for the big day. As our dad was away my aunt used to come with her cousins for Christmas. (p 40)

Christmas decorations were also simpler than many of todays. Decorations were made of paper, as Patricia described, or sometimes people came up with other creative solutions:

You couldn’t get Christmas trees so father used to get the metal rims of two cycle wheels and fix them together like an orange. Then we’d thread cotton through the spoke holes round and round some new is finished it made a complete circle to which we would hang baubles and silver paper. This would then be hung from the ceiling. Mum would buy packs of coloured paper to make paper chains. Many Christmas presents were homemade, father was good with his fret saw.  (Brian Staff, p 100)

Family was also very important, and Christmas could be very special when family could be home for the holidays. Jean Adeshead remembers one very special year:

Christmas 1944 special for us as all the lads in our family were on leave. We had a big party, made all the presents, and Dad brought home a bag of apples as he was stationed in Hereford at the time and my Mum made apple cakes and tarts. Dad also brought home his chocolate ration for me and my sisters. My sister and I used our sweet ration quickly and used to buy carrots for halfpence on the way to school. (p 6 – 7)

Imagine how special it must have been to have everyone home rather than worrying about them fighting away somewhere, and how sweet those apples and the saved chocolate would have tasted! In addition to family coming home and making the holiday special, the Americans stationed in the East of England included local children in some of their Christmas parties and plans. This was part of the special relationship between some of these lonely Serviceman and curious local children. Jane Reeve remembers one year the Americans threw a party at Flixton:

One Christmas the Americans sent trucks around the villages picking up children to take to Flixton for a party. We sat in these trucks in the dark with no idea where we were bumping along to. When they stopped we were lifted down and led into a huge building with rows of tables laden with food and presents. I remember losing my younger sister in the crowd as she was much more adventurous than me. We had lots of ice cream and somehow we were reunited. There was a roar of an engine and we were told Father Christmas had landed. This I found hard to believe. Somehow we were all delivered back to our homes in the right order. (p 87)

Children at a Christmas party at a US airfield in Norfolk in WWII. Photo: 2nd Air Division Memorial Collection

What a surprise for the children that were picked up and brought to Flixton for this Christmas celebration! Many children would not have tasted ice cream or seen piles of cakes like that before. Some children had never heard music outside of the church until they attended parties at the American airfields. Additionally, many of the American servicemen stationed in the East of England were young men who maybe had not spent much time away from their own families before. Sharing the celebration would have been very special for both the US servicemen and servicewomen and the people who lived near the US airbases in Norfolk and Suffolk.

I know as I sit down to my Christmas meal this year, I will try to imagine what it was like to be eating a chicken as a rare treat, the first time I had seen ice cream, saving sugar over time to make a pudding or creating a Christmas tree from coloured paper and bicycle wheels. We have a lot to thank those that fought and lived through World War II for, so here is a toast of thanks to all those that did.

Merry Christmas, past and present, from the 2nd Air Division Memorial Library!

2 Comments

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2 responses to “A Norfolk Christmas, WWII-style

  1. John Page

    My mother and father entertained seven Americans around their table Christmas 1944 with me in a highchair. Mother had saved coupons to make a cake and apricot jam. She told me that they spread the jam on the cake and used it like cranberry sauce on the fowl.

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