The Christmas season revives memories of childhood for many people. We recall favourite toys and games that we unwrapped under the lights of the tree. Few of us ever forget receiving our first pair of skates, a sled or toboggan. There are scents, sounds and images of Christmas’ past that remain with us forever, the present-day festivities often causing them to rise to the surface from deep within us.
On November 11th this year (2015), I was struck by the fact that the number of soldiers who fought in the Second World War is dwindling. It caused me to realize that those of us who were children during the war are also declining in numbers. We remember the rationing, casualty reports, and the newsreels at the Saturday afternoon matiness that depicted scenes from the battlefront. As I viewed the yuletide lights this year, my thoughts wandered back to Christmas of 1944. It was the last festive celebration of the war, as the by the end of the year the conflict had ended in both Europe and the Pacific. That last war-time Christmas remains embedded forever within my memory.
The year 1944 was also when the greatest snow storm to ever hit Toronto descended on the city. The snow began on a Monday evening, December 11th, when light flurries silently swirled across the streets and laneways. Their intensity increased as midnight approached and in the early hours of the morning of December 12, I awoke to a wintry world beyond my imagination. By 8:00 a.m. 19 inches (nearly 50 centimetres) had fallen. The storm continued and by 10:00 a.m. there were 20 inches and 21 by noontime. Before the storm abated in the afternoon, 22.5 inches of snow had accumulated. As a child, I thought this was the greatest Christmas present that anyone could ever receive.
Clearing Bay Street of snow after the December 1944 storm. View looks north on Bay Street from near Adelaide Street, the tower of the Old City Hall in the distance. Toronto Archives, Series 372, SS100, Item 450.
Gazing north on Yonge Street south of Richmond Street, the Bay Store in the distance. In 1944 it was Simpson’s Department Store. Toronto Archives, Series 372, SS 100, Item 449.
When Christmas arrived in 1944, the enormous drifts of snow remained on the streets of Toronto. They appeared clean and white as they had been refreshed several times by Mother Nature during the preceding weeks. Unlike previous years, there was a different mood in the air. The war was in its final stages as the Normandy landing had been successful and Allied troops were invading Nazi Germany. There was expectation that 1944 would be the last Christmas that loved ones would be overseas.
For those who remember the war, especially the Christmas of the final year, the 25 things listed below may produce a few fond memories.
1. The Simpson’s windows on Queen Street (The Hudson’s Bay store still honours the tradition today)
2. The Eaton’s Santa Claus Parade, Eaton’s Toyland on the fifth floor, and having our picture taken with Santa. The Eaton’s Parade ended in 1982, and a charitable organization assumed responsibility for it.
3. The Xmas carol sheets that came with the Toronto Star newspaper, with the address for send for extra copies for a family sing-along or a church Xmas concert.
4. The Xmas displays in Kresge’s and Woolworth’s.
5. The dark Xmas cakes and mincemeat pies sold by Eaton’s.
6. Building snow forts, snowball fights, and running along the tops of the snow banks shouting, “I’m the king of the castle and you’re the dirty rascal.”
7. Singing loudly while snow-ball fighting:
There’ll always be and England, There’ll always be a France.
There’ll always be a great big hole in Hitler’s Sunday Pants.
or another song spoof,
Whistle while you work, Hitler is a jerk.
Mussolini is a sheenie, whistle while you work.
These revised words were based on the songs “There’ll always be an England” and the hit from Walt Disney’s film, “Snow White” (1937).
We also changed the words to a few Xmas carols.
While shepherds washed their socks by night
All seated round the tub.
The angel of the Lord came down,
And taught them how to scrub.
8. Candy canes in all sizes, some in red and white and others in green and white.
9. Packages of Life Saver candies that came in a carton that opened like a book, sold as stocking stuffers, and only available at Xmas time.
10. The strings of lights hanging over Yonge Street.
11. Packages of Xmas candies sold in Dominion Stores, Loblaws, A&P, Red and White Stores, and Power Stores.
12. The oranges and apples that appeared in our Xmas stockings that were considered a great treat as they were difficult to obtain during the war years.
13. The 15-minute Eaton’s Santa Claus radio broadcast with its theme song from the musical “Babes in Toyland.”
14. The light on the family Xmas trees that were on a single circuit. When one bulb burnt out, the entire string of lights went dark.
15. The corner lot where Xmas trees were sold, the vendor keeping warm by sitting around a fire in a huge oil drum. Artificial trees had not yet appeared. The first day after New Year’s when there was garbage collection, our street was lined with discarded Xmas trees. We dragged away as many as possible and built a pile of them behind our garage. We then climbed on the garage roof and jumped into the trees. My father was not happy when he had to put them out to the garbage in early spring.
16. Being threatened that if we did not behave we would receive a lump of coal in our Xmas stocking
17. Xmas tree decorations of wood, glass and paper, as there were no plastic ornaments.
18. The school Xmas party where our parents sent treats. My mother always sent a large tin of butter tarts. Store-bought treat were unheard of in our neighbourhood.
19. Going door-to-door selling boxes of Xmas cards to earn money to buy gifts.
20. Knocking on doors and when people answered we started singing carols. The people invariably gave us a nickel or dime.
21. The Salvation Army band playing carols under a streetlight, while volunteers went door-to-door to collect funds to send parcels to the troops overseas.
22. If we has a paper route, we collected a “fortune” in Xmas tips (25 cents was considered the best we could expect).
23. Getting Brazil nuts in our stocking for the first time, as in 1944 the Atlantic shipping routes had been cleared of Nazi submarines.
24. The extra Xmas matinees at the local theatre.
25. Going skating at night under the lights at the local park, the sound of the slap of the hockey pucks on the boards resounding in the crisp night air.
A link to the history of the Santa Claus Parade (1905-2015)
A link to five favourite sites in downtown Toronto to view Xmas lights
To view the Home Page for this blog: https://tayloronhistory.wordpress.com/
A link to view previous posts about the movie houses of Toronto—historic and modern.
A link to view posts that explore Toronto’s Heritage Buildings:
The publication entitled, “Toronto’s Theatres and the Golden Age of the Silver Screen,” was written by the author of this blog. It explores 50 of Toronto’s old theatres and contains over 80 archival photographs of the facades, marquees and interiors of the theatres. It relates anecdotes and stories by the author and others who experienced these the movie houses of the past. The book is a trip down memory lane for those who remember these grand old theatres and a voyage of discovery for those who never experienced them.
To place an order for this book:
Book also available in Chapter/Indigo, the Bell Lightbox Book Shop, and by phoning University of Toronto Press, Distribution: 416-667-7791 (ISBN 978.1.62619.450.2)
Another book, published by Dundurn Press, containing 80 more of Toronto’s old movie theatres will be released in the spring of 2016. It is entitled, “Toronto’s Movie Theatres of Yesteryear—Brought Back to Thrill You Again.” It contains over 130 archival photographs.
A second publication, “Toronto Then and Now,” published by Pavilion Press (London, England) explores 70 of the city’s heritage sites with images of how the city once looked and how it appears today. This book will also be released in the spring of 2016.