Christmas in Gander 1943

by WD AW1 Grace Babbitt

Editor note: This document was written by a RCAF WD in Gander during WWII in 1943 Gander and published in the RCAF Gander quartely magazine from our Publication section

The spirit of Christmas in Gander is a weird and intangible thing. It is not a state of mind that you finally attain, nor is it a feeling that develops. Rather, you come down with it, or break out with it. You approach the Christmas celebrations quite normally. Your character is unchanged, your mood is not at all strange for the time and place, when suddenly, with no warning whatsoever, you are attacked, so to speak. From that moment on the world assumes a rosy glow, without the benefit of a Gander cocktail, or any of the more civilized mediums.

I will not soon forget the exact moment at which it happened to me. It was Christmas Eve. There were piles of snow all around, as there should be, and the mess hall as I approached it, reminded me of a mountain lodge, with its festooning if icicles, and the mellow lights streaming out of it’s windows – all except the everlasting smell of stew. At that moment a black dog came aimlessly came loping onto the scene. It was Screech or Newf, or whatever his name is, and was wearing , in honour of the occasion, a stringy piece of red ribbon tied quite securely around his tail, and another equally  stringy tied tightly around his neck. Maybe it wasn’t very funny, but right then I caught what was gong around and I laughed, and kept on laughing at very short intervals for the next ten days or so.

The mess hall was lighted with red and green lights, and the great masses of fir roping and the Christmas tree gave the usually bare hall a festive appearance. The scent of the fir was a pleasant change and as the spills had not yet started their rustling showers down into the food, you could appreciate without interruption, the efforts of the staff to give the hall a holiday appearance. As a rule the business of eating is a serious, if not tragic one. You go in and eat as much as possible and come out again. Little is said. Christmas Eve was different. Nobody cared what they were eating, where or how they ate it, or if they ate it at all, and I was no exception. People lingered there on Christmas Eve and laughed and sang. The place was like a roadhouse.

Back in our barrack rooms we were holding open house, as much as possible. We had set a sort of buffet table and were trying to get rid of some of the accumulation of Christmas cakes and chocolates by spreading them out on it. The attempt was a vain one. Apparently our guests all had the same situation to cope with back in their own quarters. We had a Christmas tree, and underneath it had piled all the gifts we had been receiving for the past two months. We were proud of our tree. Like all others in the barracks, its decorations were about 90 % hand made, by us, from tinsel, tin foil, silver and gold paper, colored tissue and ribbon. We had made bells, chains, rings, roping, paper cutouts and of course a large silver star for the top. It was quite as pretty as any tree we had ever seen. First Miss Tomalin dropped in for a visit but she wasn’t hungry. Next came Miss Armstrong on her way from work to dinner, but she didn’t want to spoil her dinner, so she took just a small piece. After that Miss Jernholmn came, but she had just finished dinner and had no appetite.

After that we had nothing to do until church time, so we meandered over to the drill hall. While wandering through we came upon a strangely, unmoved, unruffled airman disinterestedly attempting to complete the decorating of a half dozen Christmas trees that were there for the dance the next night. In his own time he explained to us he had not been here long, that he had not been paid for some weeks, or perhaps it was months, had as yet nothing to do, and in a vulnerable moment had been trapped into this job. Lack of money can do strange things to a man. On the lookout for anything that might eventually prove entertaining, we offered to help him. He gave us the colored streamers and silver ornaments. In no time at all the place was swarming with people trailing colored paper around. Finally the crowd disappeared, and the tree emerged in gala garb, but somehow a lot of wide white streamers had become mixed in with the colored crepe paper ones.

In the barrack rooms again, everyone cleaned and polished up and went to church. The dimly lighted chapel was crowded. The choir sang carols and the atmosphere was the same peaceful, glad one of Christmas everywhere – eternal, stable and sustaining.

At about one o’clock we all congregated in our night clothes to open our Christmas presents. Our W.D. officers all came in to see us again and wish us a Merry Christmas. Our room corporal as acting Santa Claus and distributed the gifts. Within fifteen minutes the Christmas tree end of the room was a mass of tissue paper, ribbon, contents of packages, empty boxes, and excited W.D.s. An hour later there was still bedlam, but gradually amid the confusion and chatter we crawled into bed, too tired to remember or think for a moment other Christmases other places, feeling only that we were happy.

Contributed by GAHS


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