Thursday, December 20, 2012

Christmas Across the Great Divides

A soldier on leave at Epsom, 1914. © IWM, Item Q 53560.

It's December 19th and Christmas is less than a week away! Last year at this point, I was writing about the famous 1914 Christmas Truce and about gifts for soldiers, like the Princess Mary's Gift Box. Both of these phenomena reflect the crossing of significant barriers or divides, whether that which lay between one side and the other on the battlefield or between home and front. A wartime Christmas mediated such boundaries in many ways. Christmas was a time to set aside differences, in the case of the truce, which was said to involve games of football, solemn reflections, and food and gift exchanges. It was also a particularly meaningful time for civilians to connect with troops.

The poster above suggests a pipe or a pouch of tobacco as a gift for a soldier, urging the shopper to make the purchase as a safeguard against forgetting a serviceperson altogether (a sad and hopefully unlikely possibility). Below, the so-called "Sheffield Telegraph" Fund was a safeguard against the absence of Christmas puddings for soldiers:

"Christmas Puddings for Soldiers and Sailors," ca. 1914-18.  © IWM, Item PST 10793.

The soldiers who would have received such treats from home were not so lucky as to have been granted leave for the holiday (like their sledding comrade in the first image here). However, these men would have celebrated the holidays in as merry a fashion possible. Photographs from the IWM's collections database suggest that every effort was made to mark the occasion, even in the harshest of conditions:

Christmas dinner in a shell-hole, 1916. © IWM, Item Q1630.

I can't tell whether the group in the above photo are dining in the company of a grave (marked by the mound of gravel and wooden cross?). It certainly appears so. As I noted in my previous post about wartime theatre, many festivities on the front had to confront severe circumstances or limitations in achieving their various illusions. Regardless of whether my suspicion about the photo here is correct, the soldiers pictured are participating in a kind of theater of their own, replicating as closely as possible a festive meal shared between loved ones who are gathered specially for the occasion. Given the grim necessity of eating a surely modest supper whilst assembled in a blasted crater and possibly in the company of a dead comrade, the distance between the real and the imagined or fancifully replicated is clear, though the effort to bridge this divide is moving.

That the men keep their helmets on throughout this meal suggests that while their meal may represent a respite from the everyday reality of war, very serious danger persists. It is possible, of course, that there is no attempt to erase the battlefield here. The soldiers may well be embracing their prevailing reality (especially given their chronologically and psychologically entrenched position in the disastrous midle years of the war), with the nod to holiday tradition a somewhat farcical performance that can only highlight the impossible distance between themselves and a pre-war era or a civilian world.

Back at home, civilians seeking a bit of festive escape from the everyday might have attended the "Christmas in Wartime" event:
"Christmas in Wartime," ca. 1915. © IWM, Item PST 1074.
A khaki-clad Father Christmas sits atop the great performance venue in this poster, welcoming all to attend the fundraising event, though also reminding them of the war's heavy burden on the nation, especially at the holidays. Whether at home or on the front, Britons were well aware of Christmas's symbolic power, which in no small way was/is tied to its theatricality--its ability to represent and permit the kind of joy, peace, or communal celebration that we wish for all year round. Our participation in Christmas festivities is a way of participating in a performance--an enactment of the happy things that we want to be true or real on more than just one day out of every three hundred sixty-five (which might explain my need to set up our Christmas tree and start listening to holiday music right after Thanksgiving this year!). Nearly a century ago, our ghosts of 1914 must have longed for the normalcy of Christmas's usual illusions. Their attempts to cross the divides of war and home or wartime and peacetime evince these heartfelt holiday wishes.

I hope you've enjoyed this first set of images and musings under our Great War Christmas tree this year. I'll be back with more holiday goodies leading up to the big day next week!

© Fiona Robinson

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