Christmas in war time, 100 years ago

Sandy Vasko

    I know that many of my gentle readers have loved ones away from home this holiday season. No matter what the reason, absent friends and family loom large in our thoughts.
    Some worry that we are on the verge of another war. One hundred years ago there was no such worry, our country was at war. Set the way back for Dec. 26, 1917, location - somewhere in France.
    “Dear Mother: Well, Christmas is over once more, and I suspect you are wondering how your poor little boy spent his first Christmas away from home.
    “Our chief concern was to make Christmas merry for the patients in charge. We spent our spare moments for several days before Christmas in decorating the ward. Many say that our ward was the prettiest one in the hospital. We had a time to decide just how we should decorate. Of course, we were surprised when the decorations came. They were all colors of the rainbow. We wanted red and green decorations, but the English and the rest of them were strong for the carnival and mask dance effects. Taking into consideration the fact we had to please the patients you will not be surprised when I tell you that we strung up from the handmade red, crinkly lamp shades crepe paper streamers of light green, dark green, heliotrope, lavender pink, light blue, red, white and dark blue.
    “Then we suspended from the beams over the aisles paper roses, rosettes, butterflies and numerous other things. Beneath the lamp shades hung little bells of various colors. We put sprays of holly and mistletoe tied with red bows in all of the windows. The tri-color, the Union Jack, and the Stars and Stripes were to be seen here and there.
    “I was on guard from 12:30 to 2:30 Christmas morning and had to see that no one took away coal from the pile.”
    A bunch of us gathered together about 5:30 Christmas morning to go about the camp singing carols. Such an impressive sight to see about 30 in the dark finding the way with small lanterns, singing ‘Adeste FIdeles’ as they go. We went from ward to ward singing a different carol at each place. ‘There's a Song in the Air,’ ‘Oh, Little Town of Bethlehem’ and ‘Silent Night’ were rendered again and again. The patients were delighted.
    “At one place a chap shouted, ‘Very good singing.’ We have biscuits and bully beef. Which will you have? At another place, a Scotchman chirped out, ‘A Merry Christmas to ye all. Aye. A Merry Christmas to ye all.’ We had lots of fun.
    “By the time we had made the rounds it was daylight and so I went to the ward, snatched a bite of breakfast and began to clean up the ward for the day. There was a Christmas service at 10 a.m., but I didn't get to attend on account of distribution of presents in the ward. Santa Claus came around and distributed all the presents, which were piled up at the foot of the Christmas tree on a table in the middle of the ward.
    “Each patient got a nice Dorothy bag with numerous gifts in it from people in the States - friends of Major Beasley. Each Canadian got a stocking full of gifts from the Canadian Red Cross and so did each Australian from the Australian Red. Cross. Then, of course, the nurses gave little gifts to each patient. It was a jolly time for the poor fellows. They forgot everything for the time being and centered their thoughts on the present.
    “At 1:30 we had a very good dinner. We had roast turkey, mashed potatoes and gravy, chestnut dressing, apple sauce, cranberry sauce, pumpkin pie, plum pudding with sauce, olives, lobster salad, apples, oranges and nuts. Didn't eat anything for the rest of the day. Do you wonder?
    ‘In the afternoon four or five of us boys went around to all of the wards entertaining the patients. In the evening a bunch of up patients came around and put on vaudeville stunts. The patients never quit talking about the good time they had. As for myself, of course, I did not have a Merry Christmas, but I did enjoy myself. I stuck close to the ward all day and managed to keep the blues away. Something that many did not do.
    “Please tell me all that took place in Wilmington when you write. I understand that after Jan. 1 there is to be no sugar, no cookies or cakes, or candies in France. That will make it hard, won't it?
    “If I don't quit pretty soon the censor will throw this letter away. Many thanks for all your kindness, with much love, I remain, Your son, Ronald Jardine”
    At home, a coal shortage was announced. Starting Jan. 1 each home was requested to go without coal, and therefore without heat, for one day a week. Potatoes were plentiful, but meat, eggs, cheese and wheat products were scarce. Christmas was a subdued one that year, and Christmas presents consisted mainly of clothing, the one thing that the country still had plenty of.