In 1940 my husband, Richard and his brother Tony, were evacuated to Canada and the United States as wartime children. Their parents were braced for a Nazi invasion of Britain and they wanted their children, at least, to escape what might follow. For Christmas of 1940, Richard and Tony, then aged 10 and 12, were sent to New York to old friends of the family.
These friends lived – in a whole house! – in the Upper East Side of Manhattan. My mother-in-law had known this American couple at Cambridge: they were old-style civilised, literary, Anglophile New Yorkers.
Christmas in New York in 1940 was, as the little boys saw it, absolutely magical. England had been, even before the war, quite an austere country, and razzmatazz was not at all part of the reserved English way of life. An “instruction book” for American servicemen coming to Britain in the 1940s says: “The British are reserved, not unfriendly... if Britons sit on trains or buses without striking up conversation with you, it doesn’t mean they are being haughty... The British dislike bragging and showing off ... You will find that the British care little about size, not having the ‘biggest’ of many things as we do. For instance, London has no skyscrapers...
“Britain may look a little shop-worn and grimy to you ... the British are not given to back-slapping and they are shy about showing their affections ... [but] you will find yourself among a kindly, quiet, hardworking people.” That was the country the boys had come from. In America, everything was indeed big: giant Christmas trees, sparkling decorations, jazzy and crooning music everywhere, a huge Santa Claus over Maceys, iceskating at Rockefeller Center, carousels in Central Park, cheerful radio shows and movie theatres with cartoons, and churches lit up for carol services. It was truly a winter wonderland and the boys were dazzled with it all. Not only was Britain austere, but English children were brought up in a plain and simple manner. The boys had both been to disci plined boarding schools since the age of seven, and indulging children was considered “spoiling”, and regarded with great horror. Americans, by contrast, seemed to take pleasure in making a fuss of children.
Christmas Eve was the high point: they were decorating the huge Christmas tree in their hosts’ home and visitors began arriving for a party. These came laden with gifts, and Tony and Richard were bewildered by the huge array of wonderful and never before seen children’s toys and presents with which they were being plied. Some of the gift-givers seemed emotional, and some even had tears in their eyes as the met “the little English boys”, kneeling down and offering them gifts.
Richard came to realise that – this being New York – many of the family friends were Jewish. The spectacular array of gifts were not just a kindness to the children, but a symbolic gesture of gratitude for Britain, fighting Hitler alone in Europe. And now it is Richard who recalls with emotion that wondrous New York Christmas of 1940.
Asingle mother whose husband had left her, was, one Christmas Eve some years ago, so lacking in funds that she wondered if she and her son would have enough food to get through Christmas Day. She only had about a shilling left in her purse. What would she put in the child’s stocking?
She got down on her knees and prayed. Please Lord, she said, provide for us this Christmas. As she was praying, she noticed a stain on the carpet, and getting up again, decided to clean it. As she lifted the rug, she found, underneath, a £50 note. Her prayers were answered!
This was a miracle with a rational explanation: her husband had been a gambler, and gamblers sometimes squir rel away cash for some future “sure bet”. But for her it was an answer to prayer just the same – if she hadn’t prayed she wouldn’t have seen the stain – and that year she had one of the happiest Christmases she had ever experienced.
This particular old lady, resident in a care home for the elderly, was silent and unresponsive. She had only come there in October. She had been diagnosed with dementia and was disorientated, and nobody could get much reaction from her.
A week before Christmas, a group of carol-singers came to give a Christmas concert in the lounge, where the old people sat. They were just local people from nearby churches and it was a simple enough occasion. But the Nativity story in music worked its enchantment, and as “The First Noel”, “Silent Night”, and “Good King Wenceslas” rang out, a smile appeared on her face and she bid the carer giving her a cup of tea: “Happy Christmas!”