I’m going to be making-do-and-mending with the Museum of Bath at Work this Saturday, helping them to celebrate a World War II-style Christmas. Pop by between 10am and 4pm on Saturday 17th and you’ll likely find me wreathed in brown-paper chains with a ton of darning mushrooms and other selected vintage notions, including some gorgeous Fair-Isle knitting patterns. The museum’s usual entrance fee applies, but you’re guaranteed to really get in the mood; re-enactment group the Blitz Buddies will be there, and I hear there will be music and dancing to make the experience come alive. Incidentally, this event kicks off the 70th anniversary commemorations of the Bath Blitz next year. Bath was bombed as part of the retaliatory Baedeker raids on 25th and 26th April 1942. You can find out more at the Bath Blitz Memorial Project. If you have memories of Bath during the war, the museum would be delighted if you’d come along on Saturday and share them.
The Christmas at War organisers have broken it to me gently that I’m expected to dress the part. I’ve decided to go land-girl style, sporting a Fair-Isle tank top. Fair-Isle knitting was a great way to use up stray odds and ends of yarn (one had to unpick worn-out knitted garments and re-knit) but its popularity during World War II possibly owes as much to an interesting rationing loophole: whereas knitting wool was rationed (two ounces of knitting yarn took one precious clothing coupon), mending cards not exceeding one ounce were exempt. Yarn producers cottoned on to this and duly produced mending cards in an array of colours to meet the demand. Cunning, eh?
There were, of course, five Christmases celebrated while the nation was at war. The festivities of 1939 weren’t so different from those pre-war, though new blackout restrictions ended the sight of lit Christmas trees in front windows. Rationing hadn’t kicked in yet, and people spent quite freely on gifts, in spite of the Chancellor’s injunction not to be wasteful.
1940 was the first real wartime Christmas. Britain was under siege. The Blitz had kicked off in London in September, and November had seen the devastating bombing of Coventry. Food rationing had begun in January. Practical Christmas gifts were in: gardening tools, books, bottling jars and seeds, with the most popular gift that year being soap.
Clothing and textiles were rationed from June 1941, and food rationing increased to its peak by Christmas. Petrol and manpower shortages prevented home-delivery of shop goods, so people now had to carry their purchases. Wrapping paper was very scarce, and toys were in short supply and (when they could be found) shoddily made and expensive. Home-made or renovated gifts were the thing. Yet this was an optimistic time because, with the Allies now in the war, Brits felt they would definitely beat Hitler.
By Christmas 1942, two popular gifts had succumbed to the ration: soap and sweets. In order to prepare for the festive season, food coupons had to be saved for months ahead. Homemade decorations were the order of the day; the Ministry of Food made the helpful suggestion that, though there were ‘no gay bowls of fruit’, vegetables could be used instead for their jolly colours: ‘The cheerful glow of carrots, the rich crimson of beetroot, the emerald of parsley – it looks as delightful as it tastes.’
Christmas 1943 saw shortages at their height. There was little chance of turkey, chicken or goose, or even rabbit. Much Christmas food was ‘mock’ (i.e. false): mock ‘turkey’ (made from lamb) and mock ‘cream’ and ‘marzipan’. Make-do-and-mend presents were the order of the day; magazines printed instructions for knitted slippers and gloves, brooches made from scraps of wool, felt or plastic, and embroidered bookmarks and calendars.
Christmas 1944 was probably the least joyful of the entire war. People had hoped it might be all over by Christmas, after the Allied Normandy invasion of June, but mid-December saw the Ardennes Offensive with thousands killed on both sides. German air attacks (now V1 and V2 rockets) began in June, with 30 hitting England on Christmas Eve. One surprise benefit of the pilot-less doodlebugs was that blackout restrictions could be lifted, so churches lit their their stained glass windows for the first time in 4 years. DIY gifts were once again a necessity; the book Rag-Bag Toys gave instructions for making a cuddly pig from an old vest, and a doll from old stockings.
The unconfined joy of VE Day 1945 suddenly makes a lot more sense to me. I think I will be relishing my Christmas turkey and tree lights as never before this year!
The Museum of Bath at Work can be found on Julian Road (the Lansdown Hill end), tucked behind Christ Church.