This is a blog post by Emma Garland, a year 3 student, about her dissertation topic: Christmas in Wales, 1945-51.
When the Second World War ended, it was challenging for people to envisage quite how long the shortages in basic amenities would last. People’s lives had been heavily impacted upon by the restrictions imposed by the war, and they were determined not to repeat the war-time experience after peace. These motivations led people to elect a socialist government, who formed a ‘Welfare State’. This is the main focus of many historical accounts of this period, and leads to retrospective judgements about political reform, instead of a thorough analysis about the post-war reconstruction in Wales on a more personal level.
Studying a public holiday such as Christmas is a productive way of developing a social history of this sort. It tidily incorporates aspects of work, leisure and family. Furthermore, studying this period allows us to see how Wales dealt with post-war reconstruction and whether people tangibly felt the improvement, which is documented by historians such as David Kynaston, Arthur Marwick, and Swansea’s own Martin Johnes. This period symbolises the conflict between tradition and modernity, and also questions the impact of hindsight. It is challenging to make judgements upon the extent to which traditions were questioned, when the ultimate outcomes are apparent now.
The first chapter of my dissertation explored the more material aspects of this period. It found that three of the features most heavily limited were food, presents and decorations. Rationing was still in force, which limited the presence of certain foodstuffs. The selection of gifts was also limited as trade between countries was slow to recover on the continent and in the colonies. This led to increased investment in savings after the war, as affordable gifts were of a lower quality. Material aspects were not only limited by finances. Whilst some items could be found on the black market, others products could not. This created a shared experience among classes, even if class divisions were not diminished by this solidarity.
It was decorations, however, which best symbolised the conflict between modernity and tradition in this time. It is questioned whether the changes that took place in this period were a reflection of a will to move away from what had come before, or a desire to create something new with what was available. The necessity of Christmas trees was questioned as they were essentially not a British concept, but a German one.
The second chapter of my dissertation focussed on non-material aspects of the Christmas experience, including family, charity and happiness. The Victory Christmas of 1945 was many families’ first Christmas together since before to the war, so it was vital for some families that it was a good Christmas. Christmas is a time which exemplifies how happiness can be found in the hardest circumstances. Many families had only recently endured incredibly traumatic experiences, yet still managed to enjoy Christmas. This element also exemplifies how generalisations never apply to all, as families found themselves in so many different circumstances and contexts. Some had lost family members, others returned in the years after 1945. The war experience impacted upon people very differently. This cartoon demonstrates particularly well how other problems could be overlooked at the happiness of seeing a loved one return.
Sidney “George” Strube, Daily Express, 21 December 1945.
This period is one of transition. Through an assessment of newspaper editorials, advertisements, some personal interviews it is possible to analyse how people’s perspective changed throughout the period. It is possible to see what aspects people questioned, and what they retained. I personally believe that the changes were more of a move away from the established, than a move towards anything in particular.
To sum up, my study of Christmas in Wales 1945-51 portrays a period of complexity. It is more than the narrative that people were all better off, and it highlights that one coherent narrative never portrays a reality for everyone. Popular histories are often guilty of neglecting individual experiences in favour of the collective, but when such generalisations are made, it is imperative to acknowledge the exceptions too with such a personal holiday as Christmas.
Written by Emma Garland – Edited by Julian Wojtowicz