Friday 15 December 2017

Christmas in Northern Ireland during WW2 #Christmas #History #WW2 @DianneAscroft

Christmas in Northern  Ireland during
 World War II
Dianne Ascroft

A County Fermanagh Wartime Christmas

I love the buzz and glitter of Christmas: strings of coloured lights winking on the Christmas tree in ever-changing patterns; ornaments and tinsel in every imaginable, shiny colour; real or imitation pine wreaths, garlands and trees adorned with baubles; and the plethora of novelty items that serenade listeners with Christmas songs and carols.

For the past couple of years, I’ve been writing a series of stories set during the Second World War in County Fermanagh, a county at the western edge of Northern Ireland. There were some differences in the way Christmas was celebrated between town and country, and between Protestant and Roman Catholic homes, but overall Christmas was kept in the same way in homes throughout the county during the war years.

Most people are aware that the United Kingdom faced hardships during the Second World War, making their holiday celebrations frugal and treats rare and special. Conditions varied from place to place, and heavily bombed towns and cities fared worse than others. Northern Ireland was more fortunate than many other places.

Although Northern Ireland was part of the United Kingdom, it didn’t experience the war years in quite the same way as the rest of the nation and its Christmases were less changed by the conflict than some other places were. Among the reasons for this were: its physical location further from mainland Europe made it a less frequent target for German bombers; its mainly agricultural landscape provided food and fuel for its population, lessening the need for rationing during the early years of the war and even making it possible to supply other parts of the nation with foodstuffs such as milk and eels; and political opposition to conscription by the Nationalist population ensured that it was never enacted in the province, leaving more able-bodied men at home than in the rest of the United Kingdom. Approximately 38,000 men and women from Northern Ireland voluntarily enlisted in the armed forces but many able-bodied men remained at home to work in war industries and agriculture in the province; some went to England to work in the war industries and to build military bases.

Let’s step into County Fermanagh during the Second World War now. Before war was declared, the county was primarily a poor, rural one, far from Belfast and Londonderry, the largest cities in the province, and the way of life had changed little in generations. Families were often large: ten or twelve children were not uncommon. Farmers raised livestock such as sheep and pigs, kept a cow for milk and grew crops such as potatoes, cabbage and turnips for their own use, selling any surplus to earn money to buy necessities they couldn’t grow or make.

The arrival of Allied troops from the rest of the United Kingdom and overseas injected money into the local economy, producing unexpected prosperity. Army camps and RAF flying-boat bases sprang up throughout the county, and the population grew until approximately a quarter of the county’s inhabitants were military personnel. Although the nation was at war and conditions were difficult in many places, the inhabitants of this county were better off than they could ever remember.

Despite the changes that were occurring, Christmas remained a religious and family celebration. Longstanding divisions existed between the Protestant and Roman Catholic communities, but they shared many traditions in common, including their devotion to their religious observances. Everyone able to travel attended a church service or Mass on Christmas morning. Few had motor vehicles and petrol was rationed so parishioners walked or rode in a horse and trap, and islanders who lived on the many lakes in the county rowed to the mainland in flat-bottomed boats called cots, to their churches. Since church bells should only be rung to signal an invasion or attack, they remained silent, refraining from calling parishioners to worship as they had previously done. A Nativity scene was the focal point of each church’s decorations and, during the weeks of Advent, children were filled with anticipation as they waited for the Baby Jesus to be placed in the manger of the scene on Christmas morning.

A strong tradition of storytelling was woven into county life and the wonder of the season was brought alive for children by stimulating their imaginations rather than lavishing them with material gifts. If it snowed on Christmas Eve, children were told that the snow was the feathers of the geese being plucked in heaven for the Christmas feast and they were admonished to be good so that Father Christmas would stop at their house Christmas Eve.

Homes were decorated simply using materials that were readily available. Children gathered holly and ivy, which grew abundantly in the fields and hedges, and festooned picture frames, mirrors and the mantelpiece with them. Colourful, handmade paperchains, crisscrossing the ceiling of the sitting room and kitchen, were the other mainstay of decorations. Frequent paper drives were held to gather paper for the war effort so the chains were fashioned from any old scraps of paper that could be spared. Christmas trees were rare in family homes until years later.

Electricity hadn’t yet arrived in most parts of the county so homes were lit with oil and kerosene lamps, and candles. Roman Catholics traditionally placed large candles, set in carved-out turnip bases, in their windows on Christmas Eve to welcome the Holy Family, the Virgin Mary and, her husband, Joseph. Blackout restrictions forbade lights to be visible in windows after nightfall and, although this restriction was generally observed, it was impossible to police many remote areas so it is likely that some continued to observe the tradition, ignoring the regulations for one night of the year. 

Children hung their stockings on the mantelpiece before bedtime Christmas Eve, hoping for gifts from Father Christmas, the English equivalent of Santa Claus. Gifts were modest: a few small items such as a handful of sweets, a handmade toy, a game, and maybe something practical such as a pair of mittens or a scarf. Traditionally an orange had been included but imported fruit was impossible to obtain during the war years. A larger, but not extravagant, gift was left beside the child’s bed.  

As the war dragged on, County Fermanagh felt the effects of rationing like the rest of the nation although it wasn’t as severely hit as large towns and cities in England. Hunting and fishing supplemented diets and in many homes a bird, usually a goose or a chicken if the larger bird couldn’t be obtained, graced the Christmas dinner table accompanied by available vegetables, including potatoes and turnips. The meat was cooked slowly in a range or a roasting pot hung on a crook over the fire. Ration coupons were saved to buy extra sugar, butter and other items but they might not provide the woman of the house with all she required. A healthy blackmarket trade both ways across the border with the neutral Irish Free State supplied the shortfall. Many people made day trips by train to Bundoran, in neighbouring County Donegal, to buy items that were in short supply in Northern Ireland and smuggled them home. The trains on this route were jokingly referred to as Sugar Trains due to the amount of smuggled goods regularly brought home across the border. When every attempt proved futile and food items were impossible to obtain, people had to be inventive. Since fruit was scare and sufficient quantities of sugar for baking was difficult to obtain, Christmas puddings were sometimes made without sugar and breadcrumbs provided their substance.

Many families invited servicemen stationed at the many camps in the county to share their Christmas dinner. Their hospitality was amply repaid by the soldiers and airmen who brought treats such as tinned fruit or meat, chocolates and other luxuries. The American servicemen were particularly welcome guests as they raided their camps’ bountiful stores to bring choice items not available in the British military camps. Their contributions greatly enhanced many families’ meals.

After dinner families relaxed together at the hearth. Fireplaces were essential to heat houses, not only a pleasant addition to the holiday atmosphere. Although people were often more frugal the rest of the winter, extra fuel, either peat or wood was gathered as Christmas approached or coal was bought, to ensure a good fire in the hearth during the festive season. Television was not yet available and the radio, or wireless, was the popular form of entertainment. Particularly in Protestant homes, the King’s Speech must not be missed on Christmas afternoon.

While many were missing family members who were absent, away in the armed forces or working in England, some had additions to their families. Children who had been evacuated from Belfast because of the threat of bombing raids found temporary homes with local families, often forming lifelong bonds with their hosts.

One area of life that was transformed by the arrival of the troops was entertainment. Christmas plays and pantomimes, performed by local people as well as the occasional travelling troupe of performers, were events eagerly anticipated by young and old alike each year and this continued to be so. But the arrival of the Allied servicemen meant that many more dances were held than previously. Town halls and parish halls, as well as other venues, hosted these soirees to entertain the visitors to the county and the military bases reciprocated, hosting dances in their mess halls. Because civilians were not subject to a curfew as military personnel were, dances often ended in the early hours of the morning but the clergy ensured that on Saturday evenings dances held in parish halls ended early so that parishioners were not too tired to attend church services the next morning.

Socialising was an important aspect of the festive season and, while Christmas Day was spent at home, many visited relatives on Boxing Day, or St Stephen’s Day as it was known in the Roman Catholic community. Dropping in to chat, have a drink of tea and possibly something stronger, and maybe to dance in the kitchen was known as ceilidhing and most homes had an open door for visitors. Various groups of local lads went from house to house to entertain and collect money from their hosts; the money collected was later used to throw a party. Some of these groups were Mummers or Strawmen and their visits occurred during the week following Christmas Day. Dressed in traditional Mummer costumes and straw masks, they enacted Mummer plays, adapted from the original English ones, complete with characters that included Prince George, Beelzebub, Jack Straw and the Doctor. In the Roman Catholic community, the Wren Boys visited their neighbours on St Stephen’s Day, disguised in ragged clothes and carrying an effigy of a wren, singing and playing instruments, collecting money to ‘bury the wren’.  

Preparations for the festive season began a few days before Christmas Eve and the festivities continued throughout the twelve days of Christmas: from Christmas Day until 6th January or Little Christmas as it was often called; it was considered bad luck to take down decorations before the last day of this period. While Christmas was primarily a religious holiday, it was also a time to forget cares and enjoy life with family and friends. Privation and hardship were part of the war years but this was counterbalanced by the changes the servicemen brought to the county, both materially and socially. Because the festive season had always been celebrated simply, adversity didn’t cause it to lose its lustre during the difficult years of the war.

Dianne Ascroft
Dianne Ascroft writes historical and contemporary fiction, often with an Irish connection. Her series The Yankee Years is a collection of Short Reads and novels set in World War II Northern Ireland. After the Allied troops arrived in this outlying part of Great Britain, life there would never be the same again. The series strives to bring those heady, fleeting years to life again, in thrilling and romantic tales of the era.

Her other writing includes a ghost tale inspired by the famous Northern Irish legend of the Coonian ghost, An Unbidden Visitor; a short story collection, Dancing Shadows, Tramping Hooves, and an historical novel, Hitler and Mars Bars.

Dianne lives on a small farm, in County Fermanagh, with her husband and an assortment of strong-willed animals. When she’s not writing, she enjoys walks in the countryside, evenings in front of her open fireplace and Irish and Scottish folk and traditional music. 

Dianne loves to hear from readers, you can find her…

                    The Yankee Years
After the Allied troops arrived in County Fermanagh, Northern Ireland during the Second World War, life in the quiet, rural county would never be the same again.

Book 1: The Shadow Ally

June 1941: When Ruth Corey finds a letter her journalist boyfriend, Harry Coalter, has written, revealing details of the secret construction of an American flying-boat base, she fears he will disclose information that could destroy America's neutrality and land him in serious trouble. The letter must not be posted. Ruth enlists the help of a guest at her family's hotel, attractive Italian-American civilian contractor Frank Long, to help her stop Harry.
Can Ruth safeguard this military secret and protect her beau?

Book 2: Acts of Sabotage
December 1941: The attack on Pearl Harbor and America's entry into the war have eliminated the need for secrecy surrounding the construction of the American flying-boat base but now there is an urgency to complete the project before the first US troops arrive on Northern Ireland's shores. Frank is doing his utmost to ensure the airbase will be ready but religious conflict within the workforce and suspected IRA involvement in the theft of materials and tools from the construction site make his job nearly impossible. When Frank confides his worries to Ruth, despite the risks entailed in meddling in the activities of terrorists, the pair devise a plan to catch the thieves.
Can Ruth and Frank stop the acts of sabotage that threaten the military project and what does the future hold for the two of them?

Book 3: Keeping Her Pledge
June 1942: Pearl Grainger's life is much more exciting since the Allied troops arrived. She's out dancing several times each week and she has met RCAF seaplane navigator, Pilot Officer Chuck Walker who quickly becomes special to her. The harsh realities of war are far removed from her until the evening an RCAF flying-boat crashes into a field on her family's farm. Watching her family attempt to rescue the crew from the burning wreckage, she realises it's time she played her part in the war effort and resolves to volunteer at the nearby US Army Station Hospital. Pearl's intentions are good but she is unprepared for the harsh reality of a hospital during wartime, and her RCAF boyfriend is determined to protect her from it.
Can Pearl keep her pledge to do her bit for the war effort without losing the man she loves?

Coming Soon...


  1. What a fantastic post, Dianne. Thank you so much for sharing!

  2. Those naughty American's raiding their camp's stores! Love it!

  3. I love the fact that the American's raided the camp stores! Not so sure that the English called Father Christmas, Santa Claus though. I was always under the impression that Santa Claus was an American name, as was the red costume.

    1. Beatrice, that's right - it was Father Christmas in Northern Ireland, not Santa Claus. As I mentioned, he was the equivalent of Santa Clause.

  4. Great post, Dianne. I'm from Dublin and it reminds me very much of my Catholic childhood in the 1950s. We were allowed open our stockings before Mass but the big present could only be opened afterwards. Of course we children woke early and so our parents took us in the dark to Mass at 7 or 7.30 a.m. Donnybrook Church has wonderful stained glass windows. Although I didn't know it at the time, some were by Harry Clarke. When I think of those mornings, I think of the dark church and the glowing jewel colours of the windows.

    1. What wonderful memories, Catherine. In the '40s and '50s it definitely was the simple things that inspired awe in children and adults alike.

    2. Thanks for inviting me to share what Christmas was like in Northern Ireland during the war, Mary Anne. I'm glad readers found information that stimulated their interest and memories.


See you on your next coffee break!
Take Care,
Mary Anne xxx