'The Chief Festival of the Home': Wartime Christmas with the YMCA - Kathryn's history blog

Sunday, 23 December 2018

'The Chief Festival of the Home': Wartime Christmas with the YMCA


There is no doubt that the four Christmasses during the First World War were exceptional. There could hardly be 'peace and goodwill' during a time of conflict and a 'Silent Night' would have felt like a distant dream to those spending the festive season at the front. Rev. William Temple (later Archbishop of Canterbury) considered that each Christmas spent at war made the discomfort 'sharper and more intolerable'. All the sacrifices of war were reconsidered at Christmas-time, and as the 'chief festival of the home' it brought into starker realisation the privations experienced by all soldiers on service.

The YMCA considered its hut program to be "Tommy's Home" at the front and naturally it threw itself into the celebration of Christmas. As a Christian organisation Christmas also provided a key moment when its religious message could be disseminated to the widest possible audience, aided by Christmas cheer and a nostalgic domesticity of pre-war traditions. Even in the circumstances of war it was still possible to have a happy Christmas Sir Arthur K Yapp (the Association's General Secretary) considered in 1916, as it could be derived from 'that happiness that comes from the knowledge that one is doing one's duty'.
Camberwell YMCA hut YMCA/K/1/10/80
However, he was also aware that material celebrations were also necessary to support the men's morale, particularly as thoughts of Christmas are inextricably linked to that of the New Year which brought with it the prospect of yet another year stuck in the trenches. As a result, Yapp made it the YMCA's mission that a Christmas Party was to be held in every hut, whether in Britain, the base camps, or at the front. He stressed the importance of 'shelter, warmth and good cheer' in the huts which could 'bring back vividly to the minds of hundreds of thousands of these brave sons of empire Christmas days long ago'. With limited resources, cheer and nostalgia drove the YMCA Christmas spirit. In 1914 Harvey Moore wrote that even the lack of the 'plump robin' during the wartime Christmas made him weary, although he did concede that 'the red triangle' of the YMCA could make up for no 'robin redbreast' and the lack of the usual traditions.

Christmas cake at Aquarium Hut, Brighton YMCA/K/1/21/7
Where possible, huts were decorated for Christmas, with trees, 'bunting, long festoons of paper' and 'genuine mistletoe'. A Gordon Hamlyn noted that one hut displayed some balloons which had been posted by a Danish family, bearing the message "Entente Cordiale". Edward Barlow, a Baptist minsiter - turned YMCA worker, described the 'monster Christmas tree which was said to have been cut down from the front of a house' near to his hut "somewhere in France". Hut workers made every possible effort to decorate for Christmas, even in the Middle East or Salonica where the typical festive plants may not have been available. Special Christmas editions of the Association's newspaper were also published, to be placed on the hut tables. These both aimed to deliver a Christian or moralistic lesson for Christmas, as well as providing entertaining stories and poems.

With the scene set, the Christmas celebrations typically began on Christmas Eve evening. In many places lantern-lit services were held in the huts. Not only did this create a festive atmosphere, but would also have been a handy solution for those lacking light on the dark winter evenings. Christmas morning then began with a service, albeit soldiers in many places required to attend a compulsory army parade service. A number of these would have been hosted in the YMCA's facilities. Barlow described one in which the sermon was based on John 1:14: 'The Word became flesh and made his dwelling among us'.
Christmas in Flanders, 1916
After the services, festive merriment was certainly the order of Christmas Day, as this cartoon by W Cecil Dunford (a regular cartoonist with the YMCA) shows. Free food, singing and games dominate his impression of Christmas at the front. Huts would usually be open all day, from refreshments in the morning to musical celebrations in the evening. Yapp referred to the huts' operations as 'keeping an "open house"' where soldiers could drop in  throughout the day beyond normal hours

YMCA huts would typically distribute tea and biscuits without cost, but on Christmas this was extended to 'cakes and cigarettes'. In one hut in 1917 '785 cups of cocoa' were served almost at once in festive, warming comfort for the soldiers. At Barlow's hut Christmas presents were also given out, consisting of 'a small writing case, containing note pad and envelopes donated by the Australian YMCA. On the back of each case a motto echoed Henry Newbolt: "Talk clean, live clean, fight clean, play the game".' Newbolt was famous for his muscular Christian poem Vitae Lampada, which called on young men to 'Play up! Play up! and play the game'. Eugene William McLaurin distributed packages to soldiers on behalf of the YMCA 'containing a cigar, a cake of chocolate, and two packages of cigarettes'. Other Christmas gifts for soldiers included Bibles and leather wallets.

Christmas 1918 in Bristol YMCA/K/1/19/198
The YMCA's Christmas celebrations certainly varied depending on where the hut was operating. The above photo shows the men at "Dug Out" hut in Bristol sitting down to a Christmas dinner. There are reports of a staggering 2,000 people being present at this meal. A celebration on this scale would have been virtually impossible for many huts on the Western Front, where the festivities would have been more informal.

Christmas evening was widely celebrated with a concert or party. At a hut for Australians in Wareham in 1916 the concert went on for 'three and a half hours ... and never once did the interest lag'. This was a particularly large base hut, which could accommodate a couple of thousand soldiers, which would have undoubtedly made the interval refreshments of 'tea, coffee and mince pies' a tricky task. At Barlow's hut tickets had to be obtained in advance of the day to prevent overcrowding.
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Clare Atwood, IWM Art 3062
On the recently captured ground of the Somme in 1916 a soldiers' choir was organised by a chaplain of a Welsh battalion for the purposes of singing carols at Christmas. A Gordon Hamlyn recorded in the YMCA's weekly newspaper that it was 'not a difficulty' to encourage singing 'amongst men from the Principality' and that the happy morn of Christmas was duly celebrated, 'sung as only Welshmen can sing'.

Sports and competitions often followed on Boxing Day, as well as parties for the YMCA staff. Pillow-fighting and boxing tournaments were arranged, and Hamlyn remarked on 'dipping for apples', just as was depicted by Dunford. Hamlyn's had the added excitement of sixpenny pieces hidden in the apples and as a result, in his usual regional stereotyping, he noted that 'needless to say, a Scot won'.
New Zealand soldiers on Christmas Day, source
The YMCA certainly put every effort into celebrating Christmas across the active fronts of war, as well as in camps across Britain. Innumerable tributes to their work are recorded in soldiers' letters, including that of Harold Simpson, a Canadian who spent Christmas 1915 in Horsham. He admitted to his mother that it was a 'strange Christmas' but that 'thanks largely to the YMCA, it was far more than one could expect'. Throughout the four years of war the YMCA committed itself to supporting the religion and morale of the armed forces, wherever they were stationed, and this was no more apparent than at Christmas, when it provided the best possible reminder of home comforts and seasonal goodwill.

Merry Christmas,
Kathryn

Sources:
"The YM" British Empire Weekly
The Red Triangle Journal
The Baptist Times
http://ww1.canada.com/faces-of-war/christmas-letters-from-the-front-remain-poignant-a-century-later
The Crossed Hands of God, by Jerry R Tompkins

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