Nostalgia is a powerful force, never more so than at Christmas. This season is a time of traditions, a link to our past – some personal, like grandma’s recipe for stuffing, and others shared with many others, like watching A Charlie Brown Christmas (celebrating 55 years this yuletide season).
For me, it’s just not Christmas without Bing Crosby, along with fellow crooners such as Frank Sinatra, Dean Martin, Andy Williams and Perry Como. The movies, TV specials and, of course, the music, most of which predate my time but are indelibly linked to my Christmas. Many of the classics – Holiday Inn is on my annual must-watch list – go back to the Second World War. Holiday Inn brought us “White Christmas,” and the era gave us such staples as “Have Yourself a Merry Little Christmas,” “Let It Snow,” “Baby, It’s Cold Outside,” and, perhaps most poignantly, “I’ll be Home for Christmas.”
That’s true this year, even though the pandemic has made it a decidedly different yuletide season. That said, today’s woes are nothing like past privations.
Seventy-five years ago, soldiers were spending their final Christmas overseas, the war having ended earlier that year. On the home front, families eagerly awaiting the return of loved ones were still coping with shortages demanded by the war effort. Rationing had been a part of life for much of the war. Meat, butter and sugar were in short supply, along with gasoline. Even paper and other wood products were controlled – the artificial Christmas tree became more popular thanks to the need for lumber.
While we typically have an abundance of pretty much everything today – not everyone does, of course, as evidenced by the likes of Woolwich Community Service’s Christmas Goodwill program – that certainly wasn’t the case during the war years. Food production, in particular, was tremendously important. Not only did Canada have to feed its troops overseas, it was part of the lifeline for Britain and other Allied countries as war created shortages and hardships in Europe. By the end of the war, it was estimated that Canadian exports accounted for 57 per cent of British wheat and flour consumption – down from its 1941 peak of 77 per cent – as well as 39 per cent of bacon, 15 per cent of eggs, 24 per cent of cheese, and 11 per cent of evaporated milk consumed in Britain, according to the heritage group Wartime Canada.
Research by the organization shows that the Wartime Prices and Trade Board, the federal agency responsible for overseeing and regulating Canada’s wartime command economy, established thousands of controls on the production and distribution of food in the country.
“These ranged from prohibitions on sliced bread and iced cake in bakeries to the establishment of meatless Tuesdays in restaurants and, between 1945 and 1947, meatless Fridays, as well. Other restrictions included reductions in the production of non-essential goods like chocolate bars and soft drinks, limitations on the number of tin can sizes that could be used from 116 to only nine standard sizes, as well as the removal of foods like carrots, beets, apples, pork and beans, and spaghetti from the list of foods that could be sold in cans. One effect was that Canadians were faced with an increasing number of novel food products. The artificial sweetener saccharin became far more common in a range of packaged foods, and soybeans entered the Canadian diet in a number of different forms, whether as a substitute for salted peanuts and peanut butter or as a main ingredient in ‘chocolate’ bars.”
Canadian food production and exports grew in leaps and bounds to meet the demand, but there were still shortfalls domestically.
During that time, Canadians did without many things, even at Christmastime. The table was considerably lighter, and the tree more barren. Everybody made do. It’s hard to imagine the same kind of thing happening today, however – a sense of entitlement doesn’t mix well with selflessness.
It’s hard to imagine many people today putting up with the kind of deprivation that was commonplace during the Second World War. Of course, many of those same people had just come through the Great Depression, so they knew a thing or two about going without. Still, it wasn’t just the lack of food and other goods, but plenty of willingness to chip in.
“Canadians also enthusiastically rallied behind a range of officially sanctioned food-related wartime causes. Thousands of school children, young adult girls, and adult women devoted their summers to low-paid agricultural labour on farms in Ontario and British Columbia as members of the Farm Cadet, Farmerette, or Women’s Land Brigades. Created in response to shortages in agricultural labour, these components of the Farm Labour Service represented an impressive mobilization of patriotic enthusiasm to feed Canada’s soldiers and allies,” reports Wartime Canada.
How willing would we be to give up today’s comforts and conveniences to help others? Not very, I would wager, but most have us have never known real adversity. It’s possible we’d rise to the occasion. Better still if we never find ourselves in a situation that puts us to the test.
With days of yore in mind – and Christmas traditions harkening back to the Victorian era and old carols aplenty do in fact take us back – it would do us good to reflect on our good fortune. I’m no ray of sunshine at the best of times, as anyone who reads this space can deduce, but this is the one time of year where looking back with wonder is possible.
The goal, then, is to recapture some of that zest, that anticipation and wonder that came with the Christmases of youth. At the same time, there is the need for an adult appreciation of what a timeout from the “real world” can mean for the soul.
It’s easy to get caught up in the shopping, the dinner preparations, the running around, and a host of other complications, but if there was ever a time for simplifying things and seeing the world through less-jaded eyes, it is now.
With the approaching offer of renewal that is the New Year, Christmas is, after all, the one time of the year where we can actually believe that peace on Earth and goodwill toward others might actually be viable options – just like the message in all those carols we hear. You can bet the refrain of better days ahead was heard regularly during those war years, when the hardships make ours pale in comparison.