Christmas During The War

by Peggy Halstead from Winnipeg, Manitoba

I listened to your story of Stephanie's trip to London on the Vinyl Cafe yesterday. I too was brought up in London after the war and Dorothy's description of the Christmas parcel from Canada reduced me to tears.

You see we also got Christmas parcels from a cousin in Canada. Forever known as "Rene's parcels" they arrived for four straight years in the middle of November. I remember the day the first one came in the mail, We'd been out for a walk, Mum & I. 

That was what you did during the war, walked around all the shops to see if they had anything – food or anything - to buy. When we got home tired and cold my grandmother said a parcel had come from Rene for us. The package was in the front room. Coal was rashioned at the time so we used to heat only one room. I remember opening the door of the front room and being enveloped in a rush of cold and a wonderful smell of pine. When I asked Mum what the smell was she said it was from all the pine trees in Canada and for years that was how I thought of Canada - cold and pine trees. 

The parcel was carefully sewn in a flour sack which Mum painstakingly unpicked stitch by stitch while I danced with impatience waiting for her to get to the contents. 

She later made the sacks into tea towels, aprons & pillow cases. I was about four at the time and I'd heard about the wonderful christmas presents wrapped in colourful paper that would come my way when the war was over. To me the parcel contained all the riches of Araby wrapped up in a flour sack.

Eventually, Mum got the sack, covered in colourful stamps, unpicked and began to carefully open the cardboard box inside. By now even my grandmother was caught up in the excitement. 

She and Rene's mother had had a row years ago that resulted in Rene & her Mum moving to Canada. I sensed she disapproved of the parcel but curiosity got the better of her.

Finally Mum opened the box and - instead of the riches of Araby wrapped in coloured paper there was - food! I was a bit disappointed until Mum began removing the contents. She and my grandmother exclaiming over every item. There was a Christmas cake laden with dried fruit and a one pound bag of sugar - more sugar than we'd had at one time since rationing started. The parcel always contained so many things that were rationed, in short supply or just unobtainable, all things I'd never seen. And there was always one small present for me – a comic book, a leather bag, a pair of fancy hair barrettes that were so unusual that people would stop Mum in the street to ask where she had got them.

One year there was a chicken in a glass jar - a wonder indeed. As Mum took it out of the box she said "Here's our christmas dinner" and it was. Together with the Christmas pudding it made a festive meal.

Then there was the year customs opened the box, the first and only time it happened. They included a nice note telling us they had searched the parcel but in the search they cut open the paper bag of sugar. They put it in another bag and put it back of course, but it spilled all over the box and its contents. Mum spread a cloth on the table and wiped all the sugar off each item then she carefully flattened the box and shook each grain of sugar into a bowl, going over each seam and fold time and time again to make sure no grains were missed - all the while with tears pouring down her face at the unfairness of it all.

Mum cried again at the end of the war when Rene wrote to say she'd heard that things were back to normal in the UK now that the war was over and she didn't think we needed any more parcels. I wanted Mum to write and tell Rene that far from being back to normal conditions were still dreadful. But Mum explained that the cost of the food and the postage were probably too expensive for Rene to send so we wrote and thanked Rene for all her help instead. 

I came to visit Rene and her family many years ago, I later moved to Canada met my husband and have been here ever since.

When Rene passed away a few years ago instead of flowers I placed on her grave a small box wrapped in Christmas paper. I got a few odd looks but Rene, my Mum and I knew what it meant…and that’s all that mattered to me.