As Christmas approaches once again, it is interesting to reflect back 70 years to a very different Christmas – one that occurred during the tragic Second World War.
Red Deer, at the time, was a small community with less than 4,000 residents. A great many local families faced a Christmas with one or more loved ones far away.
For the first two years of the war, with the notable exceptions the Canadian airmen in the great Battle of Britain, the Canadian navy during the Battle of the Atlantic and the courageous, but ultimately doomed efforts of the Canadians to defend Hong Kong in December 1941, most of the Canadians in uniform had seen little in the way of direct action.
Many were posted to training camps across Canada and in England.
The situation changed dramatically on Aug. 19, 1942 when the Canadians took part in the Dieppe Raid. It was one of the worst military disasters in Canadian history.
Of the 5,000 Canadians involved in the raid, more than 900 were killed and nearly 2,000 were taken prisoners of war.
Central Alberta was hard hit, as one of the units in the raid was the 14 Calgary Tanks. While no residents of Red Deer and district were killed at Dieppe, 21 were taken prisoners of war. These men suffered greatly during their imprisonment, including being shackled for more than a year after their capture.
Moreover, it was not until the end of November 1942 that the family of Horace Gerard, who had been in the Battle of Hong Kong a year before, learned that he had been taken prisoner of war on Christmas Day by the Japanese.
While the news from overseas was bad, things were not great on the home front either. Winter started on Oct. 23 with the first significant snowfall. However, few were prepared for what was coming next.
On Nov. 15 and 16, Central Alberta was hit with one of the worst blizzards on record. More than 30 cm (nearly 12 inches) of very wet snow fell in two days. Days would pass before the City’s streets and the district roads became passable again.
With people finding it a struggle to get around, local merchants found that the traditional Christmas shopping rush was slow in getting started. Moreover, major retailers such as Eaton’s announced that there would be no evening shopping hours that year.
With wartime rationing, many things were no longer readily available. In particular, there were restrictions on the amount of tea, coffee, sugar and butter that people could buy. The sale of alcohol was not only restricted.
The Federal Government also significantly reduced the strength of spirits such as rum.
As the usual cold winter weather set in, a very ominous shortage developed. Coal, which was the major source of heat, became increasingly hard to buy.
One local coal merchant reported that he was short at least 20 railcars of coal to supply his customers.
Despite these many challenges and setbacks, people got ready for Christmas as best they could. The stores managed to offer some appealing Christmas sales, including women’s ‘festive frocks’ for $6.95, men’s ties for 50 cents, electric toasters for $3.95, large dolls for $2.98, toy trains for $3.49 and children’s paint sets for 19 cents.
Fortunately because Red Deer was located in the middle of an agricultural heartland, turkeys and Christmas hams remained in good supply.
In the days leading up to Christmas, the Canadian Pacific Railway reported that passenger traffic was more than twice what it had been in December 1941 as people travelled to visit family and friends, large numbers of military personnel took advantage of Christmas leaves and travelers in general avoided the hassles created by the rationing of gasoline.
Around town, the traditional children’s Christmas parties and annual Christmas concerts were well attended. The Christmas Eve and Christmas Day church services also drew the usual large crowds.