A WARTIME CHRISTMAS
by Mel Robertson
ONCE AGAIN CHRISTMAS is almost here and once again I will try to write a Christmas story. Over the past 30 years these have ranged from recollections of the happy Christmas Days of my childhood, Christmas fairy talks, stories of events that led up to Christmas Day, the Day itself and other events surrounding the celebrations. These have been created from old diaries, old newspapers and the recollections of people from my generation. This year, thanks to photostats of old Burford "Advance" papers which Clayton Barker obtained for me, I have decided to write about the Christmas of 1917. Many of my readers will have taken part, as children, in the events I will describe, or will know the people of whom I write.
Christmas 1917 was not a "Peace on Earth, Good will to men" time. World War I was at its height. Large numbers of Bur-ford area men were in France or at Canadian military camps. Several British families in the Burford area had suffered the loss of loved ones in bloody battles of the Somme in 1916 and Canadian troops had endured the gas attacks and other battles. The years 1916 and 1917 were described as the "Slaughter Years" and people were beginning to think that the carnage would never end. In the Burford area patriotic feelings were very strong and most concerts, garden parties, oyster suppers and teas were devoted to raising for the Red Cross or to support the Victory Loan Drives. The Burford armoury was filled almost every afternoon and night with groups of women knitting socks or mufflers for soldiers or in preparing bandages for the many wounded. Dances had a military theme and the local paper was full of letters from soldiers thanking groups or individuals for things they had received. For some reaso, the "Advance" carried little news of local militia activity although Joe Hunter with a loaded rifle did sentry duty at the Armoury every night. Wartime restrictions were evident in the fact that Mrs. Lloyd-Jones' annual notice concerning the availability of Christmas hampers of game from England did not appear in the paper.
Preparation for Burford area's 1917 Christmas began to appear early in December when local merchants felt that it was early enough to get ready for the event. Stocks of toys that had been put away in the past January were brought out and displayed alongside boxes of unshelled walnuts, almonds, Brazil and hazel nuts. Nearby, cases of sultana raisins, cushion candy, humbugs, navel oranges and mixed hard candy were squeezed in. All of these goodies were in bulk and people could buy as much as they needed without having to pay for excessive packaging. The only packaged sweets were candied ginger pieces and exotic boxes of sugary Turkish Delight. For those who wanted soft chocolates, French creams, and chocolate with walnuts
or almonds on top were available in the glass-fronted candy counter. Chocolate mints were available although many conservative-minded people felt that (he consumption of such sweets after Christmas dinner produced too many conversation-stopping stomach rumbles. Boxed candy was obtainable only at Harry Bull's drug store (now the site of J.P. Harris, Jewellery).
One of my first recollections of a Christmas gift involves a box of chocolates that Mr. Bull had displayed in his window. This was a very fine box of chocolates with a little fork to enable people to choose their candy. My sister and I were determined to give this box of chocolates to our mother as a Christmas present and we went every day to see if it was still on display. Finally our father gave us the money to buy it and we presented it to mother on Christmas morning. She was delighted and T still cherish the little silver fork as a remembrance of a happy Christmas.
The "Advance" began to gear up for Christmas in its Dec 5th prliri«ii h^ strange to say the main news was not of the war, or the coming holiday, but rather of the fuel shortage that was affecting almost everyone in the area. Every coal dealer was out of coal and many homes and business establishments had no heat of any kind. In Burford, the public school, the "Advance" office, and three churches had no heat. However on Thursday, Dec. 5th two carloads of coal arrived in Burford and four in Scotland. These had been obtained through the efforts of local Grange societies and were intended for their members only. Considerable hysteria was generated by the arrival of the coal and the "Advance" editor wrote, "Burford is getting more like New York every day. The Grange Society has had to hire a constable to guard their coal cars." However, there was no theft of coal and it was all sold by the next day. The paper noted that several Grange members, who had other sources of heat, had allowed their share of one load of coal each, to be bought by non-members. The "Advance" editor, who was a member of the Grange, obtained his coal just in time, for he was about to stop publication of the paper due to the lack of heat in the printing office.
The shortage of fuel in December, 1917 was a real crisis for the winter had begun with its best and its worst. Early in the month it was so cold that all the mill ponds froze solid and the Mt. Vernon "Advance" correspondent reported "loads" of Brantford skaters coming to skate on Fowler's mill pond. However, the nice part of winter did not last for at the end of the first week there was a three day blizzard that blocked all the roads so badly that the Rev. Mr. Saunders, who was looking after the Mr. Vernon and New Durham churches, was unable to get past Henry Lester's farm and Sunday services in both churches
had to be abandoned. Even in Burford the storm was so bad that a special patriotic service at the Congregational church drew so few people that the pastor agreed to repeat his sermon the next Sunday. The weather continued to be bad and in the "Advance" of Dec. 20th the Mt. Zion correspondent reported another three day storm that was described as the worst storm of the season with heavy winds, blowing snow and temperatures below zero. The local editor tried to put some humour onto the situation by noting that the storm would delay the Fall ploughing.
Christmas advertising in 1917 did not reflect the Holiday season. For example, Ausleybrook & Co. devoted their entire ad to the many things a woman would need to do her weekly washing. Burford baker L. Gunn gave some recognition to the approaching Day by advertising that since most people would be saying "Pass the bread" customers should stock up with this commodity. In Cathcart, John Stephenson announced that he had 300 pounds of tea at 40 cents a pound and 250 pounds of black tea at 32 cents a pound, plus five gallons of coal oil at 90 cents and Richard's Pure Soap at five cents a bar. The only Christmas oriented advertising came from two Bur-ford stores, P.A. Sprowl, who had recently come from Norwich, advertised "Lightning Hitch" hockey boots at $4, tea aprons with lace binding at 20 cents, hand sleighs from 60 cents to $1.50 and hand-made purses and bags from 15 to 50 cents. His slogan was "What to get and where to get it". The store of John Robertson & Son (my father) which advertised as "The Store of Quality" published two lists of Christmas suggestions, one for ladies and one for men, suggesting for ladies fancy collars, scarves, hose slippers and towels and for men fancy braces and garters, scarves and mocha gloves. Strange to say the Robertson ad made no mention of toys for children. My father, who probably wrote the ad, was very Christmas conscious as far as his children were concerned. However, my grandparents were stern Scots who did not believe in pampering children. They must have exerted some influence on the contents of the ad. Both stores featured long strings of fancy handkerchiefs pinned to lines that ran the width of the stores. Before the invention of paper tissues, fancy hand-k-oiv-liiefc wf"'" ? *v>fwbrr ~f~'hrir'"•" • ;r" Their cost ran from 10 cents to 50 cents. Every year a shy old bachelor who lived on the Norwich road, would whisper to my mother that he would like a nice fancy handkerchief wrapped and boxed as a Christmas gift to some lady he did not dare to approach. Since the man never married and was never seen with a lady, mother often wondered who was the object of his secret admiration.
Health in 1917 Burford Township was not at its best. Chicken pox was rampant. Several schools were closed and attendance at others was severely reduced. Pneumonia was prevalent among adults and all "Advance" correspondents reported people "very low" with this disease. On Dec. 13th the "Advance" carried news that Charles Campbell of Mt. Vernon had been taken suddenly ill with pneumonia while shopping in Brantford. He was rushed to the hospital where he died a few days later. From Fairfield came the news that Miss Hall, the popular school teacher, had been compelled to resign due to ill health. Pneumonia in 1917 was a very serious thing for there were few medications to treat it. As a result both the weak and the strong were struck down. For example, my uncle Mel Woodin, a strong and athletic young man, died of pneumonia in 1919 at age 38.
From overseas came word of Burford men in hospital. A letter from Sam Tapley to his sister Sadie came from the military hospital in Orpington England. In this Sam described how he had been "hit" (wounded) in the upper leg a month previously but had received no medical treatment for 19 days. He reported that the wound was four inches deep and the fact that he had walked around in the mud for 19 days had made healing difficult. Also from England came word that Frank Secord, who had been convalescing in England, had returned to
France. Locally there was a report on Dec. 20th that Capt. J.A.B. Secord a Veterinary Surgeon, who had been spending a month's leave with his parents, had returned to France. Veterinary surgeons were in great demand during the First World War due to the employment of horses and mules as motive power and the foolish belief that cavalrymen, charging on horseback, could compete with machine guns.
Politics took up more newspaper space than Christmas, or the War, in the Burford "Advance" for not only were there the usual December elections for Township Council and Village Trustees but also there was a federal election. Consequently the "Advance" of Dec. 5th, 1917 was filled with political ads for federal candidates Harry Cockshutt, Blackwell Doran and John Harold as well as those of M. Burtis, Henry Lester, N.W. Smith, H. Lloyd-Jones, W.H. Shellington and Wm. Barker for local offices. Political rallies took up as much space as "Recruiting Drives" and on Dec. 13th the "Advance" reported a Cockshutt rally in the Burford Armoury at which Sir Sam Hughes was the main speaker. This was an afternoon event which was notable for the large numbers of ladies who attended and for the enthusiasm with which they greeted the speaker. One has to wonder if the large attendance was due to the popularity of the candidate or to the curiosity generated by the flamboyant Sir Sam Hughes whose actions, while Minister of Defence, had received so much publicity. Blackwell Doran's campaign was less military in character and his rally in the Barnea Hall was supported by Alan Kneale, Dr. Rutherford, John Weir and Col. J.Z. Frazer. Here again great enthusiasm was displayed by the large audience of ladies. There were no reports of rallies for John Harold. It may seem strange in 1991 that the "Advance" of 1917 devoted so much space to the attendance of enthusiastic ladies at political rallies but we must remember that in 1917 women were just beginning to take interest in politics and their "rights". Final results of the Federal election in this area were - Cockshutt-859 votes, Doran-538 and Harold-185.
Christmas entertainment in 1917 Burford was double that of normal years for not only were there the usual Public school and Sunday School concerts but also there were
in Support of me war effort.
These kept people "on the go" almost every day and night of the month. All cannot be mentioned but a few deserve notice. For example, on Dec. 5th the Burford Women's Institute Red Cross Committee held a "Fruit & Jelly Shower" that was followed the next day by a "Home Cooking Sale" in the Brantford "Tea Pot Restaurant". This latter event generated some controversy for soon after the restaurant advertised a short course in cooking for Burford women. This course was not a reflection on Burford cooking but rather a course for young women that was attended by many Burford and Mt. Vernon teenagers. In the same week, a Red Cross euchre was held in the Armoury with an admission charge of "not less than 10 cents". In the following week the Tansley Women's Institute and the Tansley Men's club got together at Mrs. Henry Bonney's. At this meeting the ladies packed a bale of clothing, boots and quilts for the Halifax Disaster Fund and the men contributed $35 to their "Soldier's Fund". During the same week the Burford Women's Institute had a "Shower" of New clothes for the Halifax disaster and held a euchre party that netted $90 for Belgian Relief. In reporting these events it may seem in 1991 that the amounts of money raised were small but we must remember that in 1917 many men worked for $1 a day and women could be hired to do all day washing for 25 cents plus their dinner and tea. Thus the sum of $90 raised in 1917 would be the equivalent to $900 or $1,000 in 1991.
Other charitable events included a shower of fruit and vegetables at Hatchley for their "War Veterans Home" where, despite a terrible storm, 25 people contributed apples, maple sugar, potatoes, pickles and turnips. On a quieter note was (continued next page)
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a 50 guest card party at the home of Mr. & Mrs. Joe Brethour south of Burford at which Mrs. H. Miller and C.C. Phiney won priz.es and Miss Eadie of Oakland and Mrs. F. Chilcott, G. Fowler, C. Templer and others provided the entertainment and music. Chicken pie and oyster suppers were held everywhere with one particularly large one being at Mt. Vernon church where "little Miss" Axford-elocutionist from Brantford and Mrs. Sprowl, Morris and Silverthorne provided the entertainment. The sum raised was $78.75.
Preparations for the usual Sunday School and Public School concerts began early in December and on Dec. 2nd Fairfield led off with a "Concert and Tree" that took in $20. On Dec. 3rd the Burford Congregational Church held their concert. This featured the Lombardo children from London who provided flute, violin and piano solos plus orchestral numbers. These were Guy Lombardo and his brothers who became internationally noted as "Guy Lombardo and his Royal Canadians", a dance orchestra whose New Year's Eve music from New York ushered in the New Year for many years. Other concerts followed in all parts of the Township but unfortunately most area correspondents restricted their comments to "a good time was enjoyed by all" and thus I can not describe them.
No description of a 1917 Burford Christmas can be complete without reference to the activities of the Burford Grange Society which led the community in many things; particularly their action in solving the fuel crisis early in December. This was followed by a very successful oyster supper in the Barnea Hall which, despite a bad storm, drew a big crowd and 21 new members to their membership of over 80. A week later the Grange held a debate in Miller's Hall on the subject "Men will do more for money than they will do for love". This debate (as can be expected) drew large numbers of ladies who wanted to check up on their husbands and boy friends. It also drew a number of Mt. Vernon people who came dressed as "Songs". Miss Dyment and Fred Ludlow came as "Old Folks at Home", Blanche Lawson & Etta Leggett as "Two Little Girls in Blue (from the Broadway show "Florador")", Edith Macdonald as "Canada", Mae Sturgis as "Red Wing", Addie Norris as "America", and Peter Porter as "Old Black Joe". Each sang the song they represented and received great applause. Unfortunately, the "Advance" did not report the names of the debaters, or judges or who won.
And so the month of December, 1917 wound its way toward Christmas Day. The path it trod was a strange one for it took people through scenes of great sadness created by the war and the Halifax disaster and by the happy Christmas concerts to the joys of Christmas in the home. "Peace on Earth" seemed a long way off in December, 1917 but the promise of eventual happiness that the birth of our Saviour gave to all, helped people endure the present.