23 December 2008
By John Prendergast
IN CASE you missed it we are in the middle of a credit crunch, so while it means cheap deals are on at Woolies until it closes its doors, the other result will be we all have to cut back here and there on our usual festivities.
And while Timmy may have to make do with an annual rather than an X-box game, or the crackers will be Tesco Value rather than M&S, that is nothing to the restrictions many of the residents of Southwark went through during wartime Britain.
While there is a danger of vilifying the 'We only got a satsuma for Christmas and we were happy to get that', there can be no doubt times were truly tough. This year’s events, whatever form they take, will still eclipse the celebrations in and after the war in the lavishness stakes.
For starters it was not unusual for families not to even spend the day together. One such family were the Rolls who lived on Gomm Road. With ten children, the youngsters would be evacuated off to the country, while the older kids would do their bit for the wartime effort.
Liz Cole was twenty as the war broke out in 1939 and worked in munitions. While her younger siblings were sent off to Lancing near Shoreham and then to Dunstable, she remained very much in the thick of the action.
Unfortunately the daily slog of the war meant that Christmas was often not particularly noteworthy during the war years. Ms Cole said: "Although I don't remember there being any bombings on Christmas Day, it was often the same as any other day. You might meet your friends for a drink, but a lot of my memories were spending Christmas on your own."
While big sister was slogging away for the war effort John Roll, now 79, spent most of it away from the family's Bermondsey home. He was first moved, along with his siblings, to Lancing, to live with a fisherman and his family for ten months, but his Christmases on the farm in Dunstable were a veritable feast in food terms.
He said: "It didn't seem to affect them at all at Christmas time, as they had everything you wanted to eat on the farm. So you would have something that is similar to today."
But on their return to London in 1943, the effect the war had on the Christmas day meal was drastic. He added: "At home we would have spent time down the tube at London Bridge, and the Christmases down there we would have spam sandwiches. I remember my mum gave one to an old fellow who was down there and he loved it - he was over the moon."
His sister added that even after the war, while rationing continued, the same 'feast' was still regularly served up: "We still had spam and I hate that stuff, but that was what I remember eating and on Christmas Day we just would not have much to eat."
Decorations were also at a premium and Mr Roll remembers one piece of Christmas improvisation being particularly effective: "There was a bit of wood we had down the tube that we painted green and decorated with what we could grab to make it look like a tree.
"The thing was that someone came along and spotted it and said 'That is the first time I have seen a real Christmas tree.'"
Although it is an oft spouted cliché that kids only got a bit of fruit or coal for Christmas and were grateful, the reality is it was not far from the truth. Mr Roll said: "We had a little stocking and would get an apple and an orange in it, and maybe thruppence and that was about it for presents."
His sister added that sometimes they would have something knitted for them, and sixpence - the going rate for any present you bought. She insisted that despite the comparative opulence now she retains fonder memories of those days than of recent years.
After the Christmas feed, whether in the shelters under London Bridge or at home, was not spent slumped in front of the fire dozing, but singing or playing games. Ms Cole remembered: "We played games like cribbage or dominos and we had an organ that my dad used to pedal and we would sing round."
And, not surprisingly, the spirit of the locals gathered underground often saw Christmas Day end in a singsong. Mr Roll said: "There tended to be somebody down there with an accordion and everybody would start singing carols."
He added: "People would come out onto the platforms and then later start singing songs by Vera Lynn or whoever was popular at the time."
So while this year may be a tough year for us all, Ms Cole says she for one can't believe some of the things she has done since the war on Christmas Day. She said: "I am going down to my daughter’s this year as she lives out in the country. One year I even spent a Christmas out in Spain, so you can see how life has become so much different now at this time of year."
The pictures have been used with the permission of the Imperial War Museum. They have two exhibitions 'Christmas Truce' and 'Presents from a Princess' which are free to enter - any child must be accompanied by an adult.
The first covers the Christmas Truce of 1914, where an actor will explain how soldiers coped during the war. The latter is on the setting up of Princess Mary Gift Boxes, where 355,000 were sent to forces abroad. For more information visit www.iwm.org.uk.
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