Out and About (Sort of): Blitzmas by Howard Freedlander

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As this is my last column prior to Christmas, I thought I would write about a time in history, nearly 78 years ago, when people living in another country celebrated Christmas surrounded by terror imposed by a man intent on destroying democracy. Lives and morality didn’t matter.

Like other stories about this blessed holiday, hope and resilience rang out as undeniable traits and virtues of good people under merciless and mortal attack. This story also illustrates the tribal instincts of people sharing a calamity, determined to celebrate their communal heritage, regardless of their station in life.

As many readers will figure out, I am referring to Britain in December 1940. Between September and November, London had witnessed 57 consecutive nights of bombing by the German Luftwaffe. Air raids by German forces destroyed large sections not only of London but also of Birmingham, Bristol., Southampton, Manchester, Sheffield, Portsmouth, Gosport and Leicester. Assuming this disastrous onslaught would not pause on Christmas Day, a million Britons spent Christmas Eve in London in underground air-raid shelters.

According to reports in Time Magazine and British Broadcasting Corporation (BBC) about “Blizmas,” Christmas parties ‘were elaborate communal affairs with mass harmony singing, skits and dancing.’ Of course, typical Christmas activities did cease. Streetside caroling was canceled due to relentless bombing and blackouts. Expensive goose and turkey were supplanted by ‘cheap Empire beef and mutton.’

Determined Britons continued some festive traditions. For example, parents still took their small children (‘moppets’) to musical theater productions known as ‘Christmas Pantomimes’ in London.

As I learned 50 years ago while doing graduate work at Manchester University in northern England, the British are nothing if not resolute and maybe even a bit stubborn. They do not wilt in the face of pressure or tragedy. They persist and persevere. The German blitz failed to vanquish British spirit and resolve.

During World War II, many urban families sent their children to the country to flee the bombing raids. Gifts often were homemade and practical. Children’s toys frequently were made from recycled materials. In 1941, the Ministry of Supply forbade the use of paper for gift-wrapping, cutting down on the surprise factor.

Postal workers were in short supply due to the war, requiring smaller staff to handle the onslaught of extra letters and parcels. Less space was available on the railways, where it was needed to transport troops and uniforms.

Many American troops stationed in England during the war spent Christmas with British families, often bringing much-welcomed gifts of food to rationing-restricted families.

The National Savings Committee distributed posters encouraging saving, frowning upon superfluous spending and promoting public investment in the British war effort.

The British War Relief Society, an umbrella organization encompassing numerous small charities that popped up across the United States to provide the British with clothes, food and other types of non-military aid, served as an administrative office and central location for money and supplies. Money and supplies would then be distributed to organizations in areas that had suffered badly during the Blitz.

As an example of the Britons’ constant supply of humor is an iconic photograph showing a couple kissing under the mistletoe, wearing gas masks. Could British resilience, leavened with good-natured fun, be any better displayed?

Christmas is a special holiday, strongly resistant to wartime misfortune. Yes, it must adjust periodically to a highly restrictive environment. It may even have to go underground. But its celebrants, young and old, will find ways to enjoy its festive aspects.

To families whose sons and daughters are serving overseas, I wish them a joyous holiday season. It’s difficult when loved ones are away from home, perhaps serving in dangerous parts of the world.

To families suffering from economic and health-related hardship, I wish you happiness amid stress. The stories related in The Star Democrat on behalf of the Brighter Christmas Fund are heart-wrenching.

To friends whose spouses are suffering health challenges, I wish you grace and contentment as you confront emotional pain.
And, finally, I extend holiday greetings to all of you who take the time away from your seasonal preparations to read this column. Thank God we can celebrate Christmas in peace.

Columnist Howard Freedlander retired in 2011 as Deputy State Treasurer of the State of Maryland. Previously, he was the executive officer of the Maryland National Guard. He also served as community editor for Chesapeake Publishing, lastly at the Queen Anne’s Record-Observer. In retirement, Howard serves on the boards of several non-profits on the Eastern Shore, Annapolis and Philadelphia.

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