In have been asked to share my memories of another wartime Christmas, but what to choose? Christmas 1941 and 1942 are memory blanks, and Christmas Eve 1944 was oneo of tragedy for many close friends. At 10 p.m. on that evening a “piggy-back” buzzbomb demolished the home of our church choir-master, killing his wife and other guests — mainly our choir — and seriously injuring many others. However, Christmas 1940 is truly memorable, and, like life itself, is full of light as well as shade.
On Friday, December 20, I left London, where I worked, to spend Christmas at home near Manchester. The train was crowded and unheated, and after four months with air raids every night, and fire-fighting duty one night a week, I was tired. 1940 had been a hard year: in the spring, German forces had invaded Denmark and Norway (both neutral countries); a few weeks later, Hotler’s troops pushed through the Netherlands and Belgium (more neutral countris) and into France.
By a minor miracle, and with the spontaneous help of hundreds of little sail boats and cabin cruisers, and aided by the unusual calm of the English Channel, most British troops escaped from Dunkirk. Threats of invasion, attacks on RAF bases, and the Blitz with heavy air raids on London and other cities had followed, but — though bloodied — we were still free.
I arrived home only to find that my parents had left to go to the wedding of a cousin who —together with his brother —had been brought up with us. (I was known as “Taylor’s sister” to the boys of St. Bede’s College in Manchester). In war-time, weddings had to accommodated to army leaves, and John T. Had a seven-day leave. Mother and Dad were expected to return home on Sunday evening.
At about 5:30 p.m. on Sunday the radio suddenly stopped (our early warning of an air-raid) and in the silence came the barking of dogs, who ears picked up the air-raid sirens from 18 miles away on the other side of the Pennines. Our air-raid siren was quickly followed by anti-aircraft fire and the noise of enemy bombers which went on for hours. During one short lull, my sister, who had gone out to bar the high gate of our walled garden,called me to, “Come and look.” Thewhole sky was alight, and from our hillside position we could see Manchester — some seven miles away —in flames. We looked, knowing that our mother and father were somewhere in that inferno.
For over 24 hours we waited without news, but late on Monday evening they arrived home. The railway line had been hit and everyone turned off the train. Luckily my mother had friends close by (she had friends everywhere) and they found their way there for the night. By devious routes they eventually got home. An hour later, Jim, our other “brother-cousin,” arrived, also on leave. Ironically he had brought his wife and two year-old daughter to be where it was safer than on the Southeast coast. The bridal pair arrived on Christmas Eve, and the family was now complete. That was the good news. The bad news was that the food warehouses were hit. It was to be over two months before anyone got meat or butter.
As we sat round the fire on Christmas Eve, (there were no midnight Services because of the blackout), someone mentioned the conflict between ware and the Christmas angels’ essage of “Pease on earth to men of good will.” It was Dad who spoke of Edith Cavell, the English nurse in Belgium who ws —unjustly —shot as a spy in the 1914-18 war. Before the Germans shot her she made this last statement of her Christian faith:”Patriotism is not enough; I must have no hatred in y heart.” There was silence, and Jim said: “That is not easy,” and my father, the gentlest of English gentlemen asked: “Did anyone every say that it was easy to be a Christian?” The lesson “Love your enemy; do good to them that hate you,” was rammed home. I have never forgotten it.
On Christmas Day my mother broke the tradition of years. Usually the youngest member of the family siad grace, sometimes helped by gentle prompting. This year Mother said grace. Before she did so she said, very seriously, that “peace on earth” begins withi each of us, within our families, and within our neighbours. She thatnked God that we wee all safe and together for what could possibly be the last time. “Let us all make certain that we look back to Christmas 1940 as a happy one, and a family one. This might be the last time we are all together. Let us enjoy evey minute.”
We did not know it then but Christmas 1940 was the last time we were all together, but we look back —not with sadness —but with happy memories of the “peace and joy”of Christmas even midst the devastation of war.