Wartime Christmas

by Edith Russell

This article appeared in the Millennial Star of December 24th 1942. It had won first prize in the Star’s Christmas Literary Contest, with Muriel Perry of the Welsh District and Vera Thistleton of Hull taking second and third places.

The world, climatically speaking, was disappointed in its dreaming. It was not a White Christmas after all. It was a dull-skyed, weeping, fog-enveloped season of in-elastic ration-books and unlighted fires. It was Christmas 1942, Anno Domini.

The calendar said it was Christmas Eve, but old Samuel did not hear it. He heard his clerk in the outer office rubbing his hands vigorously together to induce a little warmth into those frozen members, and he coughed in order to remind him that he paid him to use a pen and not to perform circulatory exercises during office hours.

Wartime Christmas 1

Old Samuel was in his usual Christmas humour, ill-tempered, domineering, loud-voiced and scornful. Once, fifty years ago, when he was a boy, he had sung carols at house-doors and hymns in church, and had eaten turkey and plum pudding and other indigestible trifles at Christmas. He had laughed and kissed the girls under the mistletoe, and Christmas had filled him with a sense of peace and goodwill towards mankind. But that was fifty years ago and in half a century a man changes. He had other things to think about: money, business, providing for the old-age which had crept upon him unawares, speculating on the Exchange. And now it was Christmas again.

If you could call it Christmas, with little in the shops, few luxuries and buses which couldn’t be spared for pleasure anymore. Not that old Samuel wanted these things. Not a bit of it! War was good for trade. The fuel target was a blessing. He had no children who might be ill-bred enough to expect presents. The war had killed many; had put out the lights and tightened humanity’s belt. And in the end, it had killed Christmas too. Samuel chuckled with satisfaction and bent more arduously to his ledgers.

At six o’clock he put on his hat and emerged into the blacked-out city. The fog had increased, and everything looked ghostly and unfamiliar, but he knew his way to Commodore Street and set off with brisk, decisive steps. Shadows banged into him, apologised and redirected their steps. He heard people laugh as they jostled each other’s arms. A small boy, wheeling a hand-cart, in which sat enthroned a smaller girl, ran into his legs, nearly upsetting him. The little Boadicea screamed, ‘Look out Bill! Mind old Scrooge! That’s ‘is wooden leg!’

Something flared up in old Samuel, burned a minute, then flickered and died. A Christmas tree, catching at his coat as he walked by, distracted his attention from the children and when he looked again they were gone. He walked on, his hands fumbling with a sixpence in his pocket.

He realised with something of a start that the street looked strange. Where the bank should have been, a house now stood. Incredulously, he stopped. He was lost. He had been so certain that he knew the way and he was undoubtedly lost. He had trod these same pavements for fifty years. And now, he had lost the way. Incredulous. But true.

A figure knocked into his shoulder and a pleasant voice said, ‘O, I’m so sorry. I’m blind. Forgive me.’

Samuel put out his hand and gripped the stranger’s hand with more panic than he realised.

‘Just a minute! Can you tell me where I am? I’ve lost my way. I want to get to Commodore Street.’

‘This is Mormon Street. I’m going your way. I’ll take you there.’

‘Thank you.’ Old Samuel, with a murmured apology, put his hand on the stranger’s arm and relievedly turned to cross the street.

People still jostled them and Samuel’s tongue toyed with many alarming epithets which, strangely enough, he did not utter. The stranger’s stick beat out an uncanny tattoo as they walked.

‘Not much of a Christmas this year, I’m afraid,’ Samuel remarked conversationally. ‘I think the war’s killed it.’

‘Killed it? Killed Christmas? My dear brother, what do you mean?’ The stranger’s voice sounded shocked.

Wartime Christmas 2

‘Well, there’s not much Christmas about to-night, is there? Look at those shop windows – they’re like blind eyes – I’m sorry, I didn’t mean ---‘ Old Samuel fumbled to cover his blunder, but the stranger said without any rancour. ‘That’s all right. I understand what you mean. Look at my eyes. They are just as empty as those windows. There was someone who said that the eyes are the windows of the soul. My eyes have no light in them any more, like those windows, but behind them --! Shall I tell you what lies behind them? Christmas, my friend. Christmas in all its colour and joy.’

‘Christmas? You speak as though it was something alive.’ Samuel tried to make his voice express the scorn that had lived for fifty years within him.

‘Christmas is alive. It cannot be extinguished by war. The blackness of night does not extinguish the stars. They shine the more brightly in the darkness.’

The stranger gripped Samuel’s arm as a party of young men and girls passed them, calling out as they went. ‘Merry Christmas, Mr Bates! No, we shan’t be late, but don’t forget it’s Christmas Eve. Love to the kids!’

‘Listen, brother. There’s Christmas in people’s voices. It doesn’t matter that we have ration-books. Love and good will are not rationed. There’s not much ‘peace on earth’ but Christmas and what it means brings peace into people’s hearts.’

‘What does it mean?’ old Samuel asked, though in a strange, indefinable fashion he already knew the answer. But fifty years is a long time – and he wasn’t sure.

‘It means God and sinners reconciled. It means the birth of the Saviour. Who said, ‘Though your sins be as scarlet, they shall be white as snow.’ It means that peace and good will cannot die. Christmas is not external, friend, nor even internal. It is Eternal, as the birth of Love.’

They stopped. The fog was clearing a little now.

‘You lost the way, brother, but the same Father Who sent the Angel to direct the wise men, sent me to direct you.’ The stranger held out his hand.

A boy of 16 gripped it, a boy to whom Christmas was a glorious season; to whom for fifty long years it had been lost in a spiritual black-out, created by a man’s soul at war with his God.

‘Good night. You’re right. I had lost the way. But the fog has lifted now. Good night and – a Happy Christmas to you.’

Old Samuel turned away. It promised to be a very happy Christmas. The happiest he had known.

This article is part of the https://uk.churchofjesuschrist.org/church-history section.