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Christmas Memories, Part One: Wartime Christmas

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Wartime Christmas Crop
Arthur Wilson with his father, just before he went off to the war. Crystal Isaac

My dad, Arthur Wilson, was born on December 16, 1938 in Sarnia, Ontario. Dad grew up in wartime and poverty. His dad had signed up for the war in 1939, the day after England declared war on Germany, and so Arthur spent his first years at home with his mother and sister.

“It was hard for me to remember Christmas when I was young, because we didn’t really have Christmas like you have it today,” he says. “We never had a tree. The only thing we did was we hung our stockings on the wall and we hoped that there might be something in them in the morning. Usually what Santa brought was an orange and apple and some hard sweet candy. The war was on and everything was hard to get, so those things were usually rationed. But my mother found a way to get them and put them in our stockings. That was so exciting for us, to look in our stocking and put everything out on the bed to see what we had.

“The first real Christmas I remember was when my dad came home from overseas. The war was over. We got all dressed up, washed up, and we headed over to my Auntie Kit’s home in her new Dodge car. As we were driving down the highway, it was snowing. Not really slippery, but you know, the kind of snow that melts when it hits the pavement.

“Aunt Kit had a radio in her car, which was unbelievable to me. I never had heard of that before in my life. I was in first grade at the time, so I kind of knew what a radio was. I remember they were playing Bing Crosby’s song, ‘I’m Dreaming of a White Christmas.’ I can still hear it playing to this day. I’ve remembered it all this time. I’m almost eighty-two and I was about six or seven years old when I heard Bing sing that for the first time. It was so beautiful and it was so real because we were getting a white Christmas all around us as we drove down the highway.

“The next thing we knew, we had arrived at Kittie’s home. We were all tired and had to go to bed, but I didn’t want to go to bed because we had been told Santa was coming. Everyone was so excited about Santa coming. I went to bed like I was supposed to and in the morning I woke up.

“I went out in the living room and there, up against the wall beside the door of Aunt Kit’s kitchen, was this huge, huge toboggan. And it had my name on it from Santa. I couldn’t believe it! I thought to myself, Santa Claus is real! I never knew that he was real because he had never brought me anything before.

“You see, we always had toys growing up, because we made toys. We could take a can of beans to pretend it was a truck. You know, you could use any kind of item to make-believe. You just had to go to a sandy beach and you’re good to go! Make cars out of sticks and stuff like that. We didn’t have toys like they have today. We did not have television. We did not have cell phones. We only had whatever we could gather together. My mother was very poor, so we didn’t get very much. That toboggan was the first real Christmas present I ever remember.”

Dad has been living at the Morris Hospital since last May, in the midst of the COVID-19 lockdowns, awaiting placement at a care home. I asked him what has carried him through this tough season and what might encourage others in our communities navigating these waters.

“The Lord has been so good to me in here,” he says. “What you need to get is the truth. Pray to the Lord. The Bible says He’ll never leave you or forsake you. He is with you till the end. And the Lord is good to His word. He is my saviour, He’s my strength, He’s my hope, and He’s my prayer. That’s why even though I have been in his hospital for six months, I feel I have a purpose.”

I asked Dad about what he has learned, living through the financial pressures of wartime during Christmas and what he might share regarding that to our communities.

“Take the time to pick up your Bible and read the story of the birth of Christ,” he reminds us. “What we’re celebrating at Christmas is the birth of Jesus Christ. More important than anything is to remember the Lord. That would be the most important thing to do. I can’t emphasize that enough. Don’t get lost in Christmas gifts, ribbons and things. They are neither here nor there. Remember the manger where Jesus lay. Don’t let the devil destroy your time at Christmas with disappointments. There is so much to rejoice for. The gift of Christ is eternal life. Think about it.

“I remember, during the war, I was just a young puppy standing beside my grandfather in church, watching the people singing hymns, praising god. They were all poor back then. Nobody had a lot of money. Nobody had a lot of anything. There wasn’t much around. But the people in the Lord were happy. I could see it. I knew it. I could feel it. It was the joy of the Lord. Now it’s so easy to have stuff. Back then, it wasn’t even that we didn’t have enough money—the stuff wasn’t there to have! I mean, I’m holding a cell phone laying in a hospital bed and I’m talking to my daughter. That seems like a complete miracle, really, when I think about it.”

I asked Dad how he expects to celebrate Christmas this year. He expects that a nurse might play some songs on the piano in their common room, but he doesn’t think much more will happen beyond that.

So how can our communities support seniors this Christmas season?

“The most important thing is to visit them,” my dad says. “Find the time. These people feel lost. They are lonely, and they are cut off from the world. If you can’t visit, call them on the phone. But the main thing is to get down here and visit your relatives. I can’t believe the number of people in here that have not seen their family yet or heard from their family. They just about go nuts after a while. There’s a big need here. Huge! It gets to near desperation.”

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