Christmas on the home front

By Elizabeth Bridge, CBC Digital Archives writer

In my job at the CBC Digital Archives project, I come across some real gems from the vaults. Among my favourite clips are those dating from the Second World War, an era when the corporation really began preserving radio broadcasts for future generations.

From the distance of 65 years, the wartime imperative of food rationing seems romantic and sometimes even comical.

My mother tells a story about her great-grandmother who, before one Christmas during the war, asked everyone to save up their sugar rations for the traditional family fruitcake. The ingredients gathered and the precious cake baked, she then placed it in a trunk in the vestibule to age a few weeks. But when the clan retrieved it on the big day, an overpowering scent made it quite clear they wouldn't be enjoying Christmas cake that year. Due to an accident years earlier, this ancestor had no sense of smell and therefore no idea her hard-won fruitcake had been marinating in toxic naphthalene fumes, otherwise known as mothballs.

Wartime rationing of sugar and butter made Christmas menus extra challenging in 1943. (The Gazette/Library and Archives Canada/PA-108300).

As evidenced by a 1943 radio show called Food Facts and Food Fashions, my forebear's advance planning for Christmas was quite normal for the time. In a clip from the Digital Archives website called Christmas on the home front, host Dorothy Batchellor advises wartime homemakers on how to pull off Christmas dinner in the era of rationing.

With two weeks to go before the 25th, she assumes your mincemeat, pudding and fruitcake are already made. She then outlines an ideal schedule leading up to Christmas Day, which fell on a Saturday that year. Here's the week:

Weekend before Christmas: make cranberry jelly, bake (and then hide) cookies, make salad dressings

Monday: Finalize menus and shopping lists, but be flexible as some foods may be unavailable.

Tuesday: Do as much shopping as you can, except for perishables.

Wednesday: Finish your baking, prepping pastry dough and cheese straws so they're ready for rolling and baking.

Thursday: Make your bread for stuffing.

Friday: Wash salad greens and place in crisper, stuff the turkey, make pudding sauces.

Saturday morning: Prep your vegetables early, but not too early, or you'll destroy the vitamins.

Apparently this plan, faithfully followed, will prevent you from being a nervous wreck during the holidays and allow you to enjoy yourself instead. And I thought I was on the ball for getting in on Tara's cookie exchange. Clearly, I've got some work to do if I want to pull off a successful Christmas dinner.

Tell us about your holiday meal planning. What tricks do you use to make everything go more smoothly on the big day?