I once read that as one gets older all Christmas memories blend into one. There is some truth in this saying, but there are certain Christmases that stand out in one’s memory as clearly today, as decades ago. For me, Christmas 1943 is such a memory.
It was war-time in England, and Christmas shopping was very different from today. Not only was food strictly rationed but so were clothing, coal, soap, wool, candies and a whole list of other items. Possible gifts such as watches and fountain pens had long disappeared from most shops, and donors had to use imagination, creativity and time (all too often in short supply) to produce some small presents for Christmas morning. Gasoline was severely restricted to absolutely essential services, and as public transportation was crowded, people were forced to walk. Even church services were affected, and, because not a single glimmer of light could be allowed from buildings or on the streets, there were no evening or midnight services.
Nevertheless, it was still Christmas, and those of us who were not in the forces tried to get home for the feast day. I had traveled from London, where I taught, sitting on my suitcase (a suitcase one could sit on was essential for travel in wartime) for five hours in the corridor of a crowded train, chatting with troops who were going home on leave. War or no war, it was Christmas, and as none of us knew whether we should have another one with our families, we were determined to enjoy this.
In the late afternoon of Christmas Eve, there was a loud knocking at our front door. I opened the door – taking care that no light would escape from the house – and could just see the postman, with a very late delivery. He said that he had a small parcel for my mother, and would like the pleasure of handing it to her himself. It was a little unusual, but so is Christmas. So in he came. The postman, who was elderly, and obviously very tired, spoke in the local Lancashire dialect, which I’ll translate. “Some parcels from the forces overseas came in late for today’s delivery. This one here is from one of the lads. I’ve lads of my own out there, and I know what a parcel would mean to my wife, specially on Christmas Eve, so I’ve made another round.”
It was a small package, wrapped in second or maybe third-hand brown paper and tied with string, many odds and ends of string knotted together. It contained about a dozen lemons (we had not seen a lemon for four years) and some almonds. Somewhere in North Africa “our lads” had scrounged to find boxes, paper and string, and carefully packed their gifts for their mothers, wives and children, hoping against hope they would escape submarine and air attacks enroute, and perhaps arrive in time for Christmas.
Thanks to the navy, the merchant navy, the air force and one tired, elderly postman, they did arrive.
Our postman, after a log and exhausting day, had arrived back at the main post office to find the packages from the forces overseas had just arrived. He was dog-tired after walking miles, carrying heavy bags of mail, but he did not hesitate. He knew what it meant to the men in the forces that their gifts arrive in time, and he knew what happiness the packages would bring to the families at home. He picked up his quota and set out to walk another three miles through pitch-dark streets to deliver them. And when my mother tried to thank him all he said was: “Nay lass, forget it. The joy on your face made my Christmas.”
A bowl of lemons, with bits of holly was a major part of our Christmas decorations. And now, over half a century later, I still never see a pile of lemons without thinking of, and praying for the postman – and his family – who brightened our wartime Christmas in 1943.