Two Strange Christmases: The Similarities Between 1941 and 2020

By Amy Dee Stephens (Photos Courtesy Edmond Historical Society & Museum)

Merry Masked ZOOM Christmas!

We all know Christmas 2020 is different. The Covid-19 pandemic has shaken all the pine needles from our tree of holiday tradition.

Events are online.
Shopping is online.
Santa is socially-distanced.
Presents are exchanged at arm’s length

More poignantly, the way we interact with people has had to change. Seniors are isolated. Grandparents have missed out on a whole year of hugs from their grandchildren. Grown children are forced to carry on as usual, unable to visit a sick parent in the hospital. The absence or loss of our friends and family is certainly the toughest aspect of this holiday.

Historic Similarities
By looking back into history, you will find some striking similarities between this Christmas and the Christmas of 1941—the other year when the world was forced to alter tradition.

Just 18 days before Christmas, a bombshell was dropped on America, both figuratively and literally, when Pearl Harbor was attacked. Everyone had seen it coming as war ramped up in Europe, but suddenly, peace was really gone. Really! What was going to happen?

Remember knowing that a coronavirus pandemic was looming (surely not!)? Then came the lock-down and our freedoms were gone. What was going to happen? For starters, there was a rush on toilet paper, just like there was a rush on sugar in 1941. Both years faced different-but-similar Christmas challenges.

Rethinking Resources
Leaders have grappled with the gravity of keeping all people safe from Covid-19, from city officials to store owners and managers in the workplace. Although germs are a different kind of enemy, World War II leaders also had to make life-saving decisions for the masses.
Here are some decisions from 1941 that share similarities with 2020:

• Certain industries, like shipyards and manufacturing plants, altered processes to accommodate defense materials. In 2020, many Edmond, Oklahoma companies modified their productions to make hand-sanitizers and hospital equipment.

• In 1941, industries ramped up the number of workers and added a night shift to prepare, invent and refit machines for defense. In 2020, our medical companies went into overdrive to work around-the-clock to find a vaccine.

• Just weeks after the Pearl Harbor bombing, the employment commission sent an appeal out for Edmond workers who had any underutilized skills that could help the defense industry. The skills ranged from tool makers and metal workers to engine operators. Edmond famers, meanwhile, were recruited to saved scrap iron. Here’s where 2020 was different. Our major industries, like oil and gas, shut down. Instead, unskilled workers were sought to stock groceries and make deliveries.

• For national war-time defense, telephone customers were asked to avoid long-distance phone calls on Christmas day to keep the lines clear. Even so, in Oklahoma, Southwestern Bell requested patience during long call-waiting times, with so many customers calling loved ones who couldn’t come home. We have certainly seen an increase in phone (and computer) communication this year. And like this year, the post office delivered record amounts of mail.

• Edmond officials followed the national war-time suggestion of preparing for air raids at the American Legion building and placing armed guards and extra lighting at the water and electricity plants. Covid-19 did not necessitate such measures, but we’ve all seen the extra “safety workers” at the grocery stores wiping down carts and dispensing hand sanitizer.

Staying Home
As saddened as we are to have smaller family gatherings, it is not a unique situation to history. Instead of coming together at Christmas, families in 1941 became separated by the requirements of war.

• Americans were encouraged to stay home (sound familiar?). The goal was to keep all travel vehicles, such as planes, subways and trains, free for transporting soldiers. All but essential travel was considered unpatriotic. The lyrics, “I’ll be home for Christmas…if only in my dreams” were written during WWII for a reason, and they resonate again in 2020.

• College students at military schools, such as WestPoint, were not allowed to go home for the holidays, finding themselves sequestered on campus in case they were needed for duty.

• In Boston, the archdiocese prohibited midnight Christmas services to avoid having hundreds of people out after dark in the event of an emergency. Similarly, many churches have cancelled or modified in-person services this year to prevent the spread of disease.

Since Edmond was a quiet agriculture town, it found its population in flux in 1941. The day before Christmas alone, 250 men registered at City Hall for civil defense, and recruitment ads ran nonstop. College enrollment shot down, but newcomers arrived in record numbers as senior citizens and relatives began fleeing big cities, fearful that the higher populations were first on the list to be bombed. The wide-open spaces of Edmond seemed safer. Spending time in wide-open spaces has seen resurgence in the Covid-19 world, too, and Arcadia Lake is seeing higher numbers of RV tourists from California and New York than previous years.     

Changing Patterns
That first year during the war, the buying of Christmas food and presents remained fairly normal. Saving every scrap of metal was not yet in practice widescale, and there were not yet radio commercials explaining to children why Mommy needed to buy war bonds instead of toys.

It wouldn’t be long before food rationing was required, however. An editorial notice on January 22, 1941 from Edmond grocers encouraged women to “Don’t Hoard Sugar,” explaining why over-buying supplies increased pricing. It’s a lesson we can relate to after the toilet paper run of 2020, although it was just a temporary setback for us. On January 30, 1941, the government enacted the Emergency Price Control Act—and sugar was one of the first food items to be rationed.

In 2020, ceremonial moments changed as gathering sizes became limited to avoid super-spreader events. Whether hosting an awards ceremony, throwing a birthday party or planning a wedding—modifications were unavoidable.

Edmond did not see huge ceremonial changes initially during WWII. The newspaper still had long lists of house parties, club meetings and social gatherings, but the Society Page did see a sudden influx of weddings! Just ten days after Pearl Harbor, an aspiring Edmond jeweler advertised wedding and engagement rings “for the solider boys.” Edmond’s first “war bride wedding” occurred December 18, 1941. From that point on, nearly all wedding announcements concluded by naming which branch of the military the groom (and later, the bride) had joined.”

Helping Others
Did you know the phrase, “these uncertain times,” was used in 1941, too?

A banking editorial in the Edmond Sun encouraged people, “Start a nest egg that you may need in these uncertain times.” Although it is natural to protect ourselves and our resources first, major events, including WWII and Covid-19, have historically brought out the best in most people. We help each other. The “Oklahoma Spirit” that we hear about after a tornado or shooting—was just as prevalent during the 1940s.

Just weeks after the war began, Edmond’s social clubs began to shift their purposes. Tea parties and game night became knitting circles and scrap drives.

• The Edmond community center immediately began offering Red Cross nurse training.

• The Campfire Girls collected thread spools and buttons (over 6,000) for bandages, uniforms and winter gear. Mrs. R. Halsell volunteered to make buttonholes.

• On December 18, 1941, a request went out that Edmond families consider entertaining two or more soldiers from Will Rogers airport for Christmas.

Finding the Christmas Spirit
Although many people have good reason to feel like this Christmas is ruined, history provides glimmers of hope into how people in the past have survived life’s trials. They adjusted, just like we have, and they hope for a better future.

In 1941, The Edmond Sun publisher shared a family conversation about how to achieve holiday spirit after a tragedy. “Let’s decorate more and have a prettier tree. Everyone [should] laugh more. We can make [our own] little gifts. We can make it a merry Christmas, in spite of the situation we happen to be in.” President Roosevelt also knew that keeping morale high was important during “darkest days.” The night of Christmas Eve, he lifted the blackout order in Washington D.C. to light the national Christmas tree. In his speech, he asked, “How can we pause, even for a day, even for Christmas Day?…Our strongest weapon in this war is the conviction of the dignity and brotherhood of man which Christmas Day signifies more than any other day.”

Holiday decorations and lights have been a beacon to those seeking holiday cheer in 2020. Edmond Luminance has provided a safe, Christmas wonderland. Because it is outdoors and very spread out, even folks who’ve mostly stayed home have ventured out to Mitch Park.

The people of 1941 couldn’t know that WWII would drag on for four years. When that Christmas hit, people were still in shock and denial. We, however, have had months to adjust to the pandemic roller coaster, and we can be pretty confident that we are on the downhill slope of the Covid-19. There is hope for a return to normalcy in 2021.

Christmas Wrap Up Our Christmas may be different this year, but it is not entirely unique to human history to bow to the changes of a world event. As the First National Bank of Edmond wrote in 1941, “When the darkness about us is deepest, we clasp hands tightly within our secure circle of Christmas light and love.”

Many newspapers from WWII shared this sentiment that “the only gift people really want this Christmas is peace on Earth.”
Maybe we should modify that slightly for 2020…
Here’s wishing you the gift of peace AND HEALTH on Earth.

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