Churchill’s Christmas, 1882-1947: Halcyon and Sterner Days

Churchill’s Christmas, 1882-1947: Halcyon and Sterner Days

Merry Christmas …..  Happy Hannukah

“Churchill’s Christ­mas” is excerpt­ed from a two-part arti­cle for the Hills­dale Col­lege Churchill Project. For the com­plete text with foot­notes, please click here. To Churchillian col­leagues, and those who have encour­aged and sup­port­ed our Churchill work at Hills­dale Col­lege so many years: thank-you for being our friends.

Washington, 24 December 1941

“Let the chil­dren have their night of fun and laugh­ter… Let us grown-ups share to the full in their unstint­ed plea­sures before we turn again to the stern task and the for­mi­da­ble years that lie before us, resolved that, by our sac­ri­fice and dar­ing, these same chil­dren shall not be robbed of their inher­i­tance or denied their right to live in a free and decent world. And so, in God’s mer­cy, a hap­py Christ­mas to you all.”  —WSC

“My juvenile friends…”

Churchill’s nine­ty Christ­mases saw fam­i­ly joy inter­spersed with lone­li­ness and sep­a­ra­tion, owed to a stern sense of duty. The fes­ti­val was not always a joy­ous time, but it always illus­trat­ed Churchill’s sen­si­tive, car­ing nature.

Young Win­ston wrote his first let­ter in Jan­u­ary 1882. He was sev­en, cel­e­brat­ing Christ­mas at Blenheim, minus his par­ents: “My dear Mam­ma, I hope you are quite well. I thank you very very much for the beau­ti­ful presents those Sol­diers and Flags and Cas­tle they are so nice it was so kind of you and dear Papa I send you my love and a great many kisses.”

When he was home, he was a hand­ful. Reports of his mother’s dis­in­ter­est are exag­ger­at­ed. Lady Ran­dolph was often absorbed in the lives of her two sons, if some­times exas­per­at­ed. In 1891 his par­ents planned to send him to France to pol­ish his French over the hol­i­days. Win­ston erupt­ed: “I am forced to go to peo­ple who bore me exces­sive­ly…. I should like to know if Papa was asked to ‘give up his hol­i­days’ when he was at Eton.”

His moth­er angri­ly returned his let­ter unread, only to reap the whirl­wind: Nev­er, he replied, would he write her a let­ter “of any length, as in my letter’s length I can per­ceive a rea­son for your not read­ing it….I expect you were too busy with your par­ties and arrange­ments for Christmas.”

“Are gentlemen all fox hunting?”

Child­hood frus­tra­tions were for­got­ten after his father’s untime­ly death in 1895. Now his moth­er was his ardent facil­i­ta­tor. As she aged her feel­ings deep­ened, along with her desire to have her sons with her at Christ­mas. Many times this was not to be. Win­ston was a sol­dier and war cor­re­spon­dent now, con­sumed by duty and ambition.

In 1899 in South Africa, he escaped from a Boer prison camp. He spent Christ­mas Eve at British Com­man­der Gen­er­al Buller’s head­quar­ters in Chieve­ley. He awoke Christ­mas day in a hut a few hun­dred yards from where he had been cap­tured. His thoughts were not of good will toward men. Cabling a col­umn to the Morn­ing Post, he urged the dis­patch of more troops to the Boer War: “More irreg­u­lar corps are want­ed. Are the gen­tle­men of Eng­land all fox hunt­ing? Why not an Eng­lish Light Horse? For the sake of our man­hood, our devot­ed colonists, and our dead sol­diers, we must per­se­vere with the war.”

This was not received with plea­sure back home. He recalled lat­er that a Lon­don acquain­tance cabled: “Best friends here hope you won’t go mak­ing fur­ther ass of your­self.” But two years lat­er, on an exten­sive lec­ture tour of North Amer­i­ca, his sit­u­a­tion had improved:  “I have promised to eat Christ­mas din­ner with Lord Minto, Gov­er­nor Gen­er­al of Cana­da, at Ottawa.”

“There’s a European in the bath”

Win­ston did like to move around. At Christ­mas 1907, now Under­sec­re­tary for the Colonies, he was in Khar­toum, where he had charged with the 21st Lancers nine years ear­li­er. Now he was mak­ing an inspec­tion tour of African colonies. His sec­re­tary Eddie Marsh dis­patched a ser­vant to pre­pare him a tub. The man report­ed, “there’s a Euro­pean in the bath.” [7] Churchill had got there first. He usu­al­ly did.

He stayed home more after he mar­ried Clemen­tine Hozi­er in 1908, but nev­er at the expense of offi­cial respon­si­bil­i­ties, which mush­roomed dur­ing the First World War. From his post at the front after the Dar­d­anelles deba­cle in 1915, he man­aged to secure leave, return­ing on Christ­mas Eve.

Christmas as Chartwell

(Nation­al Trust, Chartwell)

Churchill enjoyed more con­ven­tion­al Christ­mases in the 1920s, after the war end­ed. The first venue was Blenheim. After his cousin “Sun­ny,” the 9th Duke of Marl­bor­ough had divorced, the scene shift­ed to Chartwell, the Churchill home from 1922.

Clemen­tine Churchill, the arche­typ­al host­ess, was inevitably the direc­tor of events. With the births of Sarah (1918) and Mary (1922) it was a crowd­ed house­hold, and guests were restrict­ed to close fam­i­ly: Winston’s broth­er Jack and Lady Gwen­do­line (affec­tion­ate­ly nick­named “Goonie”), their chil­dren John­ny and Pere­grine and baby Claris­sa (who would lat­er mar­ry Antho­ny Eden). Some­times they were joined by Clementine’s sis­ter, the wid­owed Nel­lie Romil­ly, with her two “tiny mon­sters,” Esmond and Giles. One of the few out­siders was Winston’s sci­en­tif­ic advis­er, Pro­fes­sor Fred­er­ick Lin­de­mann, who would bring along fine cig­ars and a case of cham­pagne, even though he him­self was a teetotaler.

Those were won­der­ful times, Sarah Churchill remem­bered. Mary­ott Whyte, a cousin and Mary’s beloved nan­ny, played Father Christ­mas and dec­o­rat­ed the Christ­mas tree: “One day in full array she leant to put one tiny thing right and was near­ly burnt to death…. The small­er chil­dren, which includ­ed me, were not told and some­how Nana as Father Christ­mas still appeared.”

“Associate and fraternal bottles”

Jack’s son John­ny recalled how his Uncle Win­ston adored chil­dren and gift-giving:

Cha­rades, with its secre­cy, dress­ing up and act­ing, par­tic­u­lar­ly appealed to him. He was a gen­er­ous uncle, and we in return always gave him the best presents we could afford, though choos­ing a gift for some­one who already had every­thing he need­ed was a wor­ry. I solved it by ask­ing the advice of his but­ler or his valet….

Some of the presents, such as a pair of braces or a tooth­brush, struck me as most dull, but at least I felt they were need­ed. The won­der­ful part about it is that my uncle loved, and always has loved, receiv­ing presents. No mat­ter how small and hum­ble the gift, he accept­ed it with sur­prise and plea­sure. ‘For me?’ he would ask, his eyes light­ing up. ‘How very kind!’

“Bot­tlescape,” Coombs 177. After receiv­ing an enor­mous bot­tle of Christ­mas brandy, WSC sent the chil­dren scur­ry­ing around the house gath­er­ing small­er bot­tles and cig­ar box­es, for the still life he then paint­ed. (Repro­duced by kind per­mis­sion of Churchill Her­itage Ltd.)

Johnny’s broth­er Pere­grine remem­bered Christ­mas 1932, when their uncle cre­at­ed his famous still life, “Bot­tlescape.” Churchill had received as a present “a huge bot­tle of brandy, and decid­ed to paint it, accom­pa­nied by less­er bot­tles. He sent us chil­dren scur­ry­ing around Chartwell to find them: “Fetch me asso­ciate and fra­ter­nal bot­tles to form a body­guard to this majes­tic container.”

“This sad crepuscule”

For a man who under­went civilization’s great­est storms, engi­neer­ing a spe­cial Christ­mas was no prob­lem. One use­ful prop was his out­door heat­ed swim­ming pool. Lady Diana Coop­er referred to “this sad cre­pus­cule” as “Winston’s delight­ful toy.” Desmond Mor­ton, one of his key infor­mants on Ger­man rear­ma­ment, lived near Chartwell and was a fre­quent vis­i­tor. Con­struct­ing the heat­ing equip­ment, Churchill had told Mor­ton, “I want some­thing that will raise the tem­per­a­ture to boil­ing point on Christ­mas Day.”

One Decem­ber 25th the Churchills invit­ed Mor­ton over to bathe! “Steam was ris­ing from the bath. A large and cum­brous heat­ing appa­ra­tus had been installed—unusual at the time—which Winston’s friends thought had suf­fi­cient capac­i­ty to heat the Ritz Hotel.”

Tak­ing her turn in a win­tery pool, Lady Diana remem­bered Churchill sum­mon­ing Inch­es the but­ler: “Tell Allen to heave a lot more coal on. I want the thing full blast.” Inch­es returned to say that Allen was out for the day. “Then tell Arthur I want it full blast,” but it was Arthur’s day out as well, “so the dar­ling old school­boy went sur­rep­ti­tious­ly and stoked it him­self for half an hour, com­ing in on the verge of apoplexy. Again all had to bathe in the afternoon.”

More sep­a­rate Christ­mases super­seded those hal­cy­on days. In 1934, his wife was en route to the South Seas on a voy­age with their friends the Moynes; the next two hol­i­days would also be spent apart. In 1935, Churchill repaired for paint­ing and sun­shine to Major­ca, remem­ber­ing to invite Lin­de­mann: “It would be very nice if you could come out….Clemmie and I will have every­thing ready for you on the 19th. I am not sure whether she is stay­ing for Christ­mas or not.” Alas she was not.

Christmas apart

In 1936 Churchill faced his ever-present mon­ey prob­lems. “There is no less than £6,000 to pay in income and super tax dur­ing 1937,” he wrote his wife. He would sail to Amer­i­ca on Decem­ber 18th for a series of lucra­tive lec­tures. “I am dis­ap­point­ed not to be with you all at Christ­mas: and I don’t know how I shall spend my poor Christ­mas day [but] I feel that this par­tic­u­lar toil is a mea­sure of prudence.”

It didn’t work out. Instead Churchill spent a bleak hol­i­day in the wake of the Abdi­ca­tion of King Edward VIII and mount­ing Euro­pean dan­gers. He plead­ed in vain on the King’s behalf; the House hoot­ed him down. Tem­porar­i­ly he lost all the cred­i­bil­i­ty he had gained in the rear­ma­ment debate.

Christmas amidst war

Nine­teen thir­ty-nine found Britain at war. The fam­i­ly gath­ered for the last Christ­mas of a dying era. Now that he was again First Lord of the Admi­ral­ty, Churchill’s sense of duty pre­vailed. “In view of the dan­ger of sur­prise attacks at a time when the ene­my may expect to find us off our guard, there must be no break or hol­i­day peri­od at Christ­mas or the New Year,” he minuted.

The war clamped many a lid on Christ­mas cel­e­bra­tions. When Eric Seal, his prin­ci­pal pri­vate sec­re­tary, asked to arrange a week’s leave for the pri­vate office, Churchill replied: “Your minute about Christ­mas hol­i­days sur­pris­es me. No hol­i­days can be giv­en at Christ­mas, but every endeav­our should be made to allow mem­bers of the staff to attend Divine Ser­vice on Christ­mas Day, either in the morn­ing or after­noon. My own plans will be to work either here (Che­quers) or in Lon­don con­tin­u­ous­ly.” He set off from Down­ing Street wish­ing the staff he left behind “a hap­py Christ­mas and a fran­tic New Year.” Pri­vate Sec­re­tary John Mar­tin wrote:

We had a fes­tive fam­i­ly Christmas….For lunch we had the largest turkey I have ever seen…. After­wards we lis­tened to the King’s speech and Vic Oliv­er, Sarah Churchill’s actor hus­band, played the piano and Sarah sang. It was the same after dinner.

“Benevolent old cherub”

Decem­ber 1941 found the Unit­ed States in the war, “up to the neck and in to the death,” as Churchill put it—and found him, quite nat­u­ral­ly, in Wash­ing­ton, for the mem­o­rable remarks above.

By the end of 1942 things began to improve. Christ­mas at Che­quers found Churchill in “a grand tem­per,” sec­re­tary Eliz­a­beth Nel remem­bered. He “left us in peace most of the time and just sat up in bed read­ing a book and look­ing like a benev­o­lent old cherub.” To Pres­i­dent Roo­sevelt he telegraphed: “I passed a hap­py Christ­mas in your home and now I send my heart­felt wish­es to you and all around you on this brighter day than we have yet seen.” Roo­sevelt replied, “The old team-work is grand.”

Churchill near­ly died of pneu­mo­nia in North Africa fol­low­ing the Teheran Con­fer­ence in late 1943; his wife and doc­tor rushed to his side in Carthage. His doc­tor Lord Moran spoke of his emo­tion when told she was com­ing. “Oh, yes,” she replied, “he’s very glad I’ve come, but in five min­utes he’ll for­get I’m here.”

Sure enough, by Christ­mas Day he was back on whisky and cig­ars, enjoy­ing an epic plum pud­ding, and meet­ing with Gen­er­al Eisen­how­er, the supreme Allied com­man­der. Gen­er­al Alexan­der, Air Mar­shal Ted­der and Admi­ral Cun­ning­ham were also there to dis­cuss the com­ing inva­sion of Europe.

“This brand I snatched on Christmas Day”

Nego­ti­a­tions by lamp­light: Churchill in Athens, Decem­ber 1944, assured the sur­vival of Greek democ­ra­cy by installing Arch­bish­op Damask­i­nos (to WSC’s left) as regent in a coali­tion gov­ern­ment. (Hills­dale College)

The fol­low­ing year drew him away again, with­out protest from the stal­wart Clemen­tine. The fam­i­ly had gath­ered at Che­quers with a huge Christ­mas tree, the gift of Pres­i­dent Roo­sevelt. Sud­den­ly, telegrams brought news of a civ­il war in Greece. Churchill imme­di­ate­ly left for Athens, to nego­ti­ate a truce between com­mu­nists and roy­al­ists that saved Greece. Nine months lat­er he remarked that the “Bol­she­vi­sa­tion of the Balka­ns” was almost com­plete. All “the cab­i­nets of Cen­tral, East­ern and South­ern Europe are in Sovi­et con­trol, except­ing only Athens. This brand I snatched from the burn­ing on Christ­mas Day.”

At Chartwell on Christ­mas 1946, Churchill’s presents includ­ed hon­ey from Sir Stew­art Men­zies, head of the Secret Ser­vice through­out his pre­mier­ship. Two bot­tles of port arrived from Dun­can and Diana Sandys. Sir Stafford Cripps, per­haps in jest, sent a bot­tle of turpentine.

Despite polit­i­cal oppo­si­tion the Churchills remained good friends with the Clement Attlees. Reply­ing to their Christ­mas greet­ing, he men­tioned strug­gling with his war mem­oirs. “It is a colos­sal under­tak­ing…. How­ev­er, it is a good thing to get a cer­tain amount of mate­r­i­al togeth­er which, if not his­to­ry, will still at least be a con­tri­bu­tion thereto.”

“Whirl me round the floor once, Mule”

An aging Churchill was now less able to cope with England’s damp, cold win­ters. Christ­mas 1947 found him in Mar­rakesh, where he came to paint and write. At the Mamou­nia Hotel he host­ed a par­ty for staffers who had giv­en up their hol­i­day to accom­pa­ny him. “There was a 25-foot Christ­mas tree, win­dows hung with orange branch­es, and daubs of white paint on the win­dow panes made it seem that a bliz­zard was blow­ing out­side,” wrote his daugh­ter Sarah. “Every­one was ‘dolled up’….When mid­night struck they raised their class­es and clapped—and ‘Vive Churchill’ and ‘Bra­vo’ echoed round the room.” The band played It’s a Long Way to Tip­per­ary as a Christ­mas pud­ding was brought in. Much moved, Churchill bowed to them all.

Sud­den­ly he stood. Sarah thought it was time to go. Instead he turned to her. “Whirl me round the floor once, Mule—I think I can man­age it.” They took the floor for a waltz amidst a roar of applause. Then Churchill danced with all his secretaries.

“You are the Christmas Fairy”

Sud­den­ly he noticed “a good-look­ing fair lady” seat­ed by her­self. Sarah remem­bered him ask­ing, “Why is she alone? Dance me around the floor.” They stopped before this proud but for­lorn look­ing woman. Churchill said: “You are the Christ­mas Fairy. May I have a dance?”

Sarah had no idea what they said, but “he nev­er liked to see a beau­ti­ful woman alone. When their turn at danc­ing was done, he left her at her place. Mean­while, the detec­tives were won­der­ing if she had been import­ed as a spy.” A telegram arrived later:


One thought on “Churchill’s Christmas, 1882-1947: Halcyon and Sterner Days

  1. Thanks for the love­ly col­umn. I didn’t much like the paint­ing of Chartwell (too mud­dy and impres­sion­is­tic for my tastes), but the “Bot­tlescape” paint­ing more than made up for it. Cheers!

    Thanks; I’ve added a more Christ­masy pho­to of Chartwell from the Nation­al Trust.

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