Christmas 1914-1918

While every holiday season is unique, shared traditions bring a sense of wellness and nostalgia. In tumultuous times, holiday traditions take on special significance as they shore up additional feelings of familiarty, comfort, and home in unfamiliar an environment. During World War I, the traditions of gift giving, exchanging cards, and feasting continued in spite of global upheaval. In today’s blog we glimpse a few ways St. Andrews veterans celebrated the holidays during their time in service from 1914-1918.

Gift Giving on the Front

Princess Mary Decorative Brass Tin, 1914.

Wartime Christmas stories like the Christmas Truce of 1914 are well known to many history buffs, but the generosity of 17-year-old Princess Mary is a less told story. This decorative brass tin has a hinged lid which is embossed with a portrait of 17-year-old Princess Mary of England surrounded by a wreath. Over 426 000 members of the British, Colonial, Canadian and Indian Armed forces received these tins filled with tobacco, spices, pencils, etc during the holiday season of 1914. This idea was the initative of the young Princess Mary, the daughter of King George V and Queen Mary and she organized a public appeal which raised the funds to ensure that “every Sailor afload and every Soldier at the front” received a Christmas present.

The large number of tins to be given made their manufacturing and distribution quite difficult. To mitigate supply issues, recipients were divided into three classes: Class A who would receive gifts at Christmas, and Classes B and C who would receive the tins for New Years Day.

We do not have record of which St. Andrews veteran to whom this tin was issued. The Red River Ancestry Genealogy Centre has records of St. Andrews veterans in their holdings, as well as this tin on display in their centre.

Christmas Greetings

Even during WWI, Christmas greetings were sent to and from soldiers on the front. Each of the battalions of the Canadian Expeditionary Force had their own Regimental Christmas cards. Some of the cards were quite elaborate with embossed badges and designs. The card pictured here was sent from Private Charles Edward Lyons. Charles served in the 16th division of the Canadian Infantry (Manitoba Regiment), and passed away in August 1918 at the age of 25. This card was likely sent to his mother and father, William and Alice M. Lyons. This would have likely been the last Christmas card the parents received from their son.

This card is privately owned by a St. Andrews resident.

Merry Making

Finally, the holiday season would be incomplete without feasting and merrymaking shared by friends and family. For the Canadian military, the annual Christmas dinner goes beyond a celebration of food and friendship and includes a role reversal where junior members are served by their superiors. Although the origins of the custom cannot be traced to any specific event or time period, it has become a ‘standard’ practice from at least the 18th century.

The dinner menu of Canadian troops in England in 1916 shows a spirit of celebration continued overseas, although perhaps with more humble table offerings. Take a look at the menu on the left, a menu for Christmas dinner 1916. Christmas Dinner 1916, Officers Mess, 169th Battalion (109 Regiment Overseas Battalion, C.E.F.), Bramshott Camp, England. Photo courtesy of City of Toronto Archives, Fonds 70, Series 340, Sub Series 6, File 21.

And according to the Laurier Centre for Military Studies, the holiday spirit was also found behind the lines: “As The Listening Post noted, “Adaptability is a Canadian characteristic,” and so the men of the 7th Battalion were “prepared to celebrate Christmas to the best of their necessarily limited material resources.” With the use of a hut and a small stove, officers were treated to a Christmas dinner. After announcements by the commanding officer and a toast to Canada and the Allies there was a moment of silence to honour those killed, wounded, captured or back home. Non-commissioned officers and other men of the battalion were likewise treated to a Christmas celebration thanks to the Y.M.C.A.”

While celebrating a holiday devoted to goodwill and home during a time of widespread war may seem incongruous, it is during unstable times that the familiarity of tradition becomes particularly important. This blog provides a peek at just a few of the ways St. Andrews veterans experienced Christmas from 1914 – 1918.

Sources and Additional Reading