A Christmas menu from 1917 promises: Cream of Celery Soup; Currant Jelly; Roast Turkey with Chestnut Stuffing; Mashed Potatoes; Scalloped Onions; Tomato and Lettuce Salad with Mayonnaise; Plum Pudding; Cake; Mints; and Coffee. Christmas Pudding, whether in America, Canada, or Great Britain, completed the meal (with its raisins, real cream, and brandy).
Still, war constrained many in their feasting as sugar became a real luxury. Homemakers substituted fruit salads for cakes and sweet breads, and “Meatless Tuesday” and “Wheatless Wednesday” were encouraged. Home cooks made their pumpkin pies with molasses instead of sugar, and eggless recipes were shared in magazines and recipe booklets.
A Christmas card in 1917 may have looked something like this:
The Red Cross suggested Christmas “packets” be made and sent to our American soldiers overseas. Items recommended: writing paper, playing cards, mechanical puzzles, tobacco, chewing gum, figs, dates, hard candy, and other small items all wrapped in a khaki handkerchief that the soldier could then use. This patriotic pamphlet also suggested an “electric torch,” a fancy name for a flashlight (“The American Red Cross Woman’s Bureau”).
Gifts on the homefront were practical: toiletries, clothing, or hosiery.
According to Style: A Dry Goods Review catalog of 1917, popular toys that year included kiddie cars and tin toys such as mini warships. French, American, and Japanese dolls took the place of “banned” German dolls. No matter the gifts, Americans were encouraged to use Red Cross seals to send their Christmas cards:
Although the United States had entered the Great War that year, Great Britain, France, and Canada had been fighting since 1914. One of my favorite fictional characters, Rilla (Rilla of Ingleside), writes from the homefront in Canada:
“31 December 1917: Our fourth war Christmas is over. We are trying to gather up some courage wherewith to face another year of it” (L. M. Montgomery Rilla of Ingleside).
As for books, best sellers of 1917 included Mr. Britling Sees it Through by H. G. Wells and The Worn Doorstep by Margaret Sherwood. Both convey the experiences of World War I from the homefront in England, the latter reading as if it is nonfiction, a bit reminiscent of Elizabeth von Arnim.
H. G. Wells describes the Christmas of 1914 (through the eyes of the fictional Mr. Direck, a visiting American) as a time focused on the War, patriotism, and a general feeling of anxiety:
“Always before, Christmas had been a time of much gaiety and dressing up and prancing and two-stepping at the Dower House, but this year everything was too uncertain to allow of any gathering of guests…the Christmas tree was banned as too German, and it was discovered that Santa Claus had suddenly become Old Father Christmas again…” (Mr. Britling 280).
It seems that the American point-of-view gave Wells a chance to satirize both himself (or at least his type) and his own country. Similarly, Sherwood’s narrator views the British through the eyes of an American. Describing the lengthening days, she embraces the weather and the birds that bring her company:
“Winter is gentler here than at home, bringing at times enfolding grey mist and hours of rain; yet we have had many days of clear and sunny cold, and snow has fallen on the roof of the little red house…The English robin stays with us evidently throughout the winter; the rooks have not deserted; and we are visited daily by silver-winged gulls which come all the way from the sea for the food we put out” (The Worn Doorstep 141).
On a personal note, my family played a “game” at Christmas wherein we each were asked a personal question; then, everyone in the room shared what they thought we would say, and we revealed our own answer at the end. After we had all done, we all told where we would live if we could live anywhere in the world.
My mom spoke about old England and how the scholarly and Bible-focused universities had a feeling of home, a drawing she could not quite articulate. I think Margaret Sherwood expresses this so well in her search for a home in England, almost as though she had been in the room with us the other night:
“Everywhere, indoors and out, I am aware of forgotten chords of sympathy…In some way, by memory, by prophecy, all seems mine; the worn paths; the hollowed door-stones; the ruddy faces moving up and down the walled streets, and the quiet under the grass in the churchyard” (The Worn Doorstep 4).
So, another year closes.