Great-Nan Remembers: Christmas 74 years ago

Photo of Christmas star
congerdesign / Pixabay

Four years ago, my Christmas letter to friends included a story from Kaitlin Willard who lives in the fishing and holiday town of Gimli on Lake Winnipeg. She told us how on Christmas Eve her sister Claris found a stray dog and brought it home. The girls were upset when their Dad said they couldn’t keep the dog, but relented on Christmas Day when the family discovered that during the night the dog—who they called Chester—had chased away a burglar who had climbed in a window and was stealing the gifts piled around the Christmas tree.

Kaitlin was 12 then and in Grade 7. Now she is 16 and in Grade 11 of the High School. During one of my visits to Gimli this year, to visit Andy and Cindy and Graham, I met Kaitlin in the town and enquired how Chester was doing.

“He’s fine,” she said. “We all love him. Even Dad does, though he’ll never say he does!”

We laughed. I could imagine Kaitlin’s Dad sneaking pats on the dog’s head, but only when no one was watching.

Remembering how well Kaitlin wrote, I asked if she would be interested in writing another Christmas story for me. She said she would like to but with all her schoolwork and a part-time job at Tergesen’s Store she just didn’t have the time. Then she suddenly perked up: “But last Christmas my Great-Nan Elsie told me a story you might like to hear. Would you like me to take you to see her?”

I agreed, and so later in the week I met Kaitlin outside the Waterfront Centre and she took me in the elevator to the 3rd floor. She knocked on a door at the end of the corridor, which after a moment was opened by a frail-looking yet still very mobile lady in her early eighties.

“Hello, Kaitlin, love” she said, “so nice to see you.”

Then she turned to me: “Ah, you must be Ron. I’ve heard about you from Ginny Parent, we both belong to the Senior Women’s Institute, and she sings in the choir with Cindy, your daughter-in-law, if I’ve got it right.”

I said she had. “

And of course from Kaitlin, here,” she continued, and gestured for Kaitlin and me to follow her into her apartment, where a small table in front of a picture window had cups and saucers and slices of a rich Icelandic cake called Wienarterte. Clearly, Elsie had been looking forward to our visit.

Photo of Gimli Harbour
Gimli Harbour by Ron Blicq

I complimented her on the view from her picture window. I could see the whole of Gimli harbour, rows of fishing boats and sailing yachts lining the docks, the long curved north wall engraved with local artists’ paintings of scenes from the Interlake area, and the vast stretch of the lake extending to the horizon, looking much like the Atlantic Ocean I viewed in Guernsey as a child.

“It’s lovely,” she said. “There’s always something for me to watch, always something interesting is happening. And the sun rising over the lake in the morning is just beautiful.”

“I’d never be up early enough to see it!” I said, and we laughed as Nan poured tea into our cups.

“So, Nan,” Kaitlin said as Nan lowered herself into a reclining chair, “tell Ron about the Christmas you most remember as a child. Like you told me.”

“Ah, yes,” Nan said. “That was in 1943 and we lived in a big house on 3rd Avenue.”

“It’s still there,” Kaitlin interrupted, “close to Centre Street.”

“And it’s still in the family,” Nan explained. “My daughter Pauline—Kaitlin’s grandmother—and her husband Ross live there.”

And that’s how Kaitlin’s great-grandmother started her story. “I was Elsie Fromann then,” she said, “and it began just before my 10th birthday.”

Photo of Christmas tree ornaments
wnk1029 / Pixabay

She explained how Christmas always was a big celebration in her family—indeed it still is—and that by mid-December a fresh-cut tree with histories-old crystal decorations would already be standing in the living room. She would be shaping hundreds of coloured strips of paper into rolls and linking them into streamers, which her brothers would stand on chairs to string across the ceiling.

But that year, she said, nothing had been done, which meant she was worried that perhaps the family wasn’t going to celebrate Christmas.

“Why, Mom?” she asked tentatively. “Why is nothing happening?”

“You’ll soon see,” her mother replied.

“Yes, but why?” Elsie demanded. “Why does everyone else seem to know, but not me?”

“Oh, it’s not a secret, my dear. It’s just we’re going to have visitors and we want them to join in on everything we do at Christmas.”

“But we could still have the tree up, and all decorated,” Elsie insisted.

“No, not yet. You see our visitors have never had a Christmas before, the way we do.”

Now that really puzzled Elsie. Everyone knows what Christmas is like, she thought. But that didn’t stop her from asking: “Are they Jewish, then?”

Photo of a mug of hot chocolate
StockSnap / Pixabay

Her mother laughed. “Good point,” she said, “but not as far as I know. Come, let’s make some hot chocolate and I’ll tell you about it.

She called for Danny and Roy, Elsie’s older brothers, to join them and, sitting around the kitchen table with steaming mugs of hot chocolate in front of them, she described what was going to happen.

“You know the Air Force is training pilots at Gimli Air Base four miles west of town…”

“Sure,” Danny said, pointing at Roy, “in the summer we used to cycle out there, sit outside the fence, watch the pilots take off and land in two-engine Avro Ansons.”

“Right,” their mother said. “It’s known as the Commonwealth Air Training Scheme. They’re training pilots to fly in the war.”

She explained that not all the trainees were from Canada, in fact many were from countries like Australia and New Zealand. “So when the Air Base closes for the Christmas holiday there will be nowhere for them to go. So your Dad and I have asked for two visiting pilots to come to us for Christmas, not just for the one day but for Christmas Eve and Boxing Day too.”

“It will be different for them,” Roy chimed in. “Where they live, it’s the middle of summer at Christmas.”

So, on the afternoon of December the 23rd, an Air Force bus drove around the town dropping airmen off at different homes around Gimli and as far away as Winnipeg Beach. Elsie was surprised to see that when their two airmen stepped in, one was wearing a heavy grey-blue uniform, rather like the uniforms that Canadian Air Force men wore, but the other had on a very much lighter dark blue uniform.

Of course, as soon as they were introduced as Fred (grey-blue) and Ken (dark blue), Elsie couldn’t resist asking why. And, as usual, her brother Danny had to chide her: “That’s not polite, Elsie!”

But the two airmen just laughed and explained that Fred was in the New Zealand Air Force and came from Christchurch in the South Island, and Ken was in the Australian Air Force and came from Brisbane on the north-east side of that country, and each country had different uniforms.

“That’s right,” Ken said, “in Australia the north is the hottest part of the country.” To which Fred said: “And in New Zealand the south part is the coolest, because it’s nearer to the South Pole.” To which Elsie’s brother Danny added: “Ah! Just the reverse to what we have in Canada.”

Photo of snow-covered Christmas tree in the woods
mcornwall840 / Pixabay

The next morning Elsie understood why a tree had not yet been put up: her parents wanted their visitors to experience what it was like to go out into the cold, snow-filled countryside to cut down the family Christmas tree, haul it home, set it up, and decorate it. Her father had borrowed snow boots and heavy mitts from neighbours, and they ventured out in the family truck. Elsie was annoyed she couldn’t go, too, but her father explained there just wasn’t room: even her brothers had to draw straws to see which one would go.

Anyway, Elsie’s mother claimed she needed her daughter’s help to make mince pies and bake Christmas cookies, which she really didn’t mind. (“Actually,” Elsie confided to me, “I have always liked baking, and I’ve never liked the icy cold we get from the wind blowing off the frozen lake. It was nice to be inside creating those delightful Christmas baking smells.”)

Although she had been disappointed having to wait so long for the Christmas celebrations to start, Elsie found that the family’s compact wartime Christmas in 1943, stretching over just three days, proved to be a special treat.

On the morning of Christmas Eve there was such a bundle of activity, with her mother cooking a mountain of pancakes, sausages, maple syrup and fresh cream (“Yes,” Elsie said today, “even with war-time rationing mother managed it!”). Then, as her father, her brother Roy, and the two visiting flyers wrapped in coveralls over thick sweaters and wool scarves wrapped around their necks, floundered through the snow in the unaccustomed snow boots and heavy mitts, Ken announced: “How do you pick up anything, or open the lorry door, dressed like this?” Then he added: “Sorry, I meant ‘truck’, not lorry.”

An hour and a half later they returned with an enormous tree strapped to the truck roof, and carried it in through the front door and into the living room, where Danny had already positioned and adjusted a four-leg stand in the far corner, with a bowl of water in the middle for the tree to stand in. The tree was lifted vertically and an argument as big as the tree itself ensued as to how much should be cut off to leave enough room between the top of the tree and the ceiling for the traditional star to sit at the very tip.

More hustle and bustle ensued as a string of lights was wrapped around the tree, the ancient family decorations were carefully hung on the branches, and miniature Christmas crackers (the pull type, saved from year to year) were laid horizontally among them to fill the few remaining “empty” spaces. Then everyone stood back and admired the view.

It was late afternoon by then and the family went up to their rooms to dress in readiness for the candlelight Christmas service in the church. (“Unlike the way it is today,” Elsie explained to me, “In those days men put on suits and women wore dresses and were required to wear a hat in church. Very different!”) Mother and Father invited the two airmen to join them if they wished, but not to feel they were obligated to; but both agreed and dashed upstairs to put on their dress uniforms.

Elsie was awed when they edged into the family’s now-crowded pew, for there was far more than just a “sprinkling” of uniforms around them. Indeed, the vicar said at the start of his sermon that this year the church was far better attended than he ever remembered seeing it on Christmas Eve!

Elsie and her brothers were disappointed when, at bedtime, they were told that the opening of gifts around the Christmas Tree the following morning would not occur when the first one woke up, but after breakfast at about 11 a.m. “It’s time we started adopting a more civilized time,” their father said, “especially as this year we have guests in the house.” (“Actually, ” Elsie commented today, “I think our parents were glad to have a reason for avoiding the normal 6 a.m. start!”)

Photo of Tergesen's cash register and store
Modified from rtwgimli/pxhere

Elsie was concerned that their visitors would feel left out when the scrambling around the tree and opening of presents occurred, but her parents had already been to Tergesen’s Store and chosen fur lined leather slippers for them, and they in turn had brought three bottles of wine and a big box of Cadbury’s chocolate from the camp shop.

In the afternoon the family took the traditional Christmas Day walk through the town and onto the harbour wall, their visitors once again bundled up like live snowmen, recognized in Gimli as an occasion for the townsfolk to exchange Season’s Greetings. Yet, again, it was different because among the strollers there were many—admittedly shivering—Air Force visitors from across Canada and other Commonwealth countries.

Boxing Day—December 26th—everyone stayed at home, reminiscing and playing board games. Monopoly, which was relatively new then—it had been sold at Tergesen’s since 1937—was particularly popular and took up lengthy periods of time. It was also a moment for their visitors to respond to Elsie and her brothers’ question: “What is Christmas like for you, when you are at home?”

Xmas Ham by Becproud in Wikimedia Commons
Xmas Ham by Becproud/Wikimedia Commons

Both men said that turkey was not the usual fare in a warm climate: more often they had cold ham or tongue, a salad, scalloped potatoes, local fruit, and a white iced cake. Then in the afternoon, Fred said, they would get out their water-skis and go to the lake or beach. To which Ken said they would meet up in a countryside area where a long, wide stream moved swiftly through the hills and they would ride down it sitting in tire inner tubes, with their head, arms and feet hanging over the edge and helping steer them through the water.

“Can you imagine,” today’s Elsie said to Kaitlin, “doing something like that on Christmas Day?”

“Oh, I’d love to,” Kaitlin said. “When I’ve finished school I’m going to save up enough to fly to Australia one winter and do just that!”

I asked Elsie if she saw any more of Dave and Ken after that Christmas. “Oh, yes,” she said, “they often came and stayed with us for weekends. Until about March, when they had finished their training and were sent overseas.”

“And after that, did you hear from them?” “The occasional letter, while they were in England. And Ken’s continued for a while after the war, when he was back in Australia.”

photo of Maori carving by Ron Blicq
photo by Ron Blicq

“What about Fred, in New Zealand?” Kaitlin asked. “Not until about 1947, when we received a parcel from Fred’s mother, with a letter thanking us for entertaining him. And then she said he had died while flying over Europe in 1944.” Elsie stood up, walked into the front hall, lifted down a Maori carving, and placed it in Kaitlin’s hands. “She said this was Fred’s, and she would like us to have it in memory of his visit with us.”

Kaitlin stroked it lovingly, her eyes moist with emotion.. “I’ve seen it so often, Nan,” she said, “but never…never thought it had…”

“Such a history?” Nan smiled. “Then I think you should keep it for me, so you can tell the 1943 Christmas story for me in future years.”

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