While, due to the pandemic, many of us prepare for a Christmas like never before, we should remember this isn’t the first time families and friends have been kept apart at Christmas. Let’s look back to the Christmases of the Second World War and consider how the people of Southampton coped when separated from their families. With most men, husbands and fathers away at war, the city embraced an influx of high-spirited American soldiers. The 14th Port Transportation Corps were in charge of operating the docks and were installed in various locations throughout the city. They would often play with kids in the street, give rides in their jeeps and they were known to be very generous with their food rations. With Christmas approaching, they too missed their families and, in the spirit of the season, decided to host a Christmas party for the city’s children. In 1943 and 1944, the US Army, Navy and Merchant Marine came together to host a programme of parties in the week leading up to and including Christmas day. Parties were held in the American Red Cross Club (near the Bargate), the Polygon Hotel (near the Mayflower theatre), and the Guildhall, which could accommodate up to 1000 children!
The Daily Echo reported that 300 children attended a party at the American Red Cross Club in 1943. A 12-foot Christmas tree, decorated with lights and chains made of coloured popcorn filled one corner of the room, and the children were entertained by a conjuror and a ventriloquist. The highlight of the occasion was, of course, the arrival of Father Christmas, played by twenty-five-year-old Corporal Adam Szukalewicz from Brooklyn, New York. Each child was given a toy, a packet of candy, a packet of cookies and fruit that the men had saved from their own rations.
In a thank you letter from St Deny’s School, it was remarked that one little girl had been so over the moon to have peaches for tea that she had four helpings; peaches were a luxury since the introduction of rationing. The letter concluded: ‘Your Christmas party will be one of the outstanding events of their memories’ and ended by wishing the US forces a quick and safe return to their relatives.
Come Christmas evening, it was the adults’ turn to have some fun. A grand ‘dance’ was held at the American Red Cross Club, where two hundred American Servicemen and their invited female guests (members of the Auxiliary Territorial Service, the Women’s Royal Naval Service and civilians) danced the night away. Music was provided by The Witch Hoppers dance band and, following a demonstration of the latest craze, the Jitterbug, a dance contest was held. Turkey and plum pudding were on the menu, along with a magnificent iced cake.
Even in the dark days of war, people made the best of the situation and celebrated Christmas with a party like never before. Simple pleasures and friendly faces ensured everyone had an enjoyable time, whilst their thoughts were firmly with their absent loved ones.
Find out more about the soldiers who passed through Southampton during the Second World War by visiting our National Lottery Heritage Fund-funded D-Day Stories from the Walls project.