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How Winston Churchill Spent Christmas, Part 1: Halcyon Days
Christmas, 1932: “Fetch me associate and fraternal bottles to form a bodyguard to this majestic container.” WSC’s command to family children after receiving an enormous bottle of Christmas brandy. The result was his painting, “Bottlescape,” Coombs 177. (Reproduced by kind permission of Churchill Heritage Ltd.)
“I spend this anniversary and festival far from my country, far from my family, yet I cannot truthfully say that I feel far from home. Whether it be the ties of blood on my mother’s side, or the friendships I have developed here over many years of active life, or the commanding sentiment of comradeship in the common cause of great peoples who speak the same language, who kneel at the same altars, and, to a very large extent, pursue the same ideals, I cannot feel myself a stranger here in the centre and at the summit of the United States. I feel a sense of unity and fraternal association which, added to the kindliness of your welcome, convinces me that I have a right to sit at your fireside and share your Christmas joys….” —Winston S. Churchill, Washington, 24 December 1941
So many a Christmas…
The impression we derive from studying Churchill’s ninety Christmases is one of family joy interspersed with loneliness and separation. Of the latter, some were owed to circumstance, some to his stern sense of duty. As a boy he often lamented the absence of his parents. As a man he frequently found himself on distant battlefields or on urgent trips in the midst of crises. The festival was not always a joyous time, but it always illustrated Churchill’s sensitive, caring nature.
“My juvenile friends…”
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.”1
When he was home, he was a handful. Reports of his mother’s disinterest are exaggerated. Lady Randolph was quite absorbed in the lives of her two sons, if sometimes exasperated. “I shall have Jack back before Christmas,” she wrote to her sister in December 1886… “…I could not undertake to manage Winston without [Winston’s nanny] Everest—I am afraid even she can’t do it.”2
We may sympathize, because he was as persistent in his holiday demands as he would be later over India or the Abdication. That persistence rarely endeared him to people. “What are you going to allow me to have for Christmas?” he wrote home that year, proposing “a Christmas party [and] about 18 of my juvenile friends. We will have another Conjuror etc. etc.”3
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.”4
“Are gentlemen all foxhunting?”
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 the boys with her at Christmas. Many times, this was not to be. Winston was a soldier and war correspondent now, consumed by drive 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 foxhunting? 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 much pleasure back home. He recalled later that a London acquaintance cabled: “Best friends here hope you won’t go making further ass of yourself.”5 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.”6
“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 his tub. The man reported, “there’s a European in the bath.”7 Churchill had got there first. He usually did.
He was more dutiful after he married Clementine Hozier in 1908, but never at the expense of official responsibilities, which mushroomed in World War I. From his post at the front after the Dardanelles debacle in 1915, he managed to secure leave, returning on Christmas Eve. Great were the rejoicings, Mary Soames wrote. Their two children, Diana and Randolph,
must have sensed the strain of the last weeks: but now it was Christmas-time, and Papa was home to make it all quite perfect. As for their parents—neither the bitter disappointments and dramatic events of the last year, nor the anxieties and perils which loomed ahead, could dim the joy and thankfulness that they were together again.8
Blenheim and 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 holiday programs. 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. Christmas dinners, which Mary remembered as “always a glorious feast,” were inevitably capped by an odd toast by Uncle Jack: “Good champagne for our real friends—and real pain for our ex-friends!”9
Those were wonderful times, Sarah Churchill remembered. Maryott Whyte, a cousin and Mary’s beloved Nanny, would take on the role of Father Christmas, donning a red robe and white beard and decorating 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.”10
Jack’s son Johnny recalled how his Uncle Winston adored children:
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!’ Then he would take the parcel into a quiet corner, open it carefully and examine the contents with the greatest possible interest.11
Sir Winston’s nephew 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.”12
Christmas in the pool
For a man who underwent civilization’s greatest storms, engineering a special Christmas was no problem. One useful prop: his outdoor heated swimming pool. Lady Diana Cooper referred to it as “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 swimming pool, 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.”13
The halcyon days were too soon superseded by more separate Christmases. 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.”14 Alas she was not.
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.”15
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. After Clementine and Mary had left for a skiing holiday in the Alps on January 2nd he was stunned by the sudden death of Ralph Wigram, the friend who had so helped him with inside information on the defense situation. The Chamberlain government, he wrote her, had “no plan of any kind for anything. It is no good. They walk in a fog. Everything is very black, very black.”16
Things were no less black in the Munich winter of 1938. Clemmie was once again voyaging with the Moynes and Winston had opted for Christmas at Blenheim, amid rumors of a possible war. “There is a sharp cold spell,” he wrote her…. Snow covers the scene: the mortar freezes: I envelope myself in sweaters and thick clothes and gloves: They say it will be worse. A white Christmas! Pray God it be not a Red New Year!”17
1 Martin Gilbert, Churchill: A Life (London: Minerva, 1992), 2.
2 Ibid., 8.
3 Randolph S. Churchill, Winston S. Churchill, vol. 1, Youth 1874-1900 (Hillsdale, Mich.: Hillsdale College Press, 2006), 82.
4 Gilbert, A Life, 30.
5 Randolph S. Churchill, Youth, 506-07.
6 Randolph S. Churchill, ed., The Churchill Documents, vol. 2, Young Soldier 1896-1901 (Hillsdale, Mich.: Hillsdale College Press, 2006), 1221.
7 Christopher Hassall, Edward Marsh (London: Longmans, Green, 1959), 140.
8 Mary Soames, Clementine Churchill (London: Cassell, 1979), 150.
9 Lady Soames to the author, 1995.
10 Sarah Churchill, A Thread in the Tapestry (London: Deutsch, 1967), 22.
11 John Spencer Churchill, Crowded Canvas (London: Odhams, 1961), 26
12 Peregrine Spencer Churchill to the author, 1992.
13 Lady Diana Duff Cooper in Robert Rhodes James, Churchill: A Study in Failure 1900-1939 (London: Weidenfeld & Nicolson, 1970), 307. Earl of Birkenhead, Churchill (London: Harrap, 1989), 511.
14 Martin Gilbert, ed., The Churchill Documents, vol. 12, The Wilderness Years 1929-1935 (Hillsdale, Mich.: Hillsdale College Press, 2009), 1338.
15 WSC to his wife in Martin Gilbert, ed., The Churchill Documents, vol. 13, The Coming of War 1936-1939 (Hillsdale, Mich.: Hillsdale College Press, 2009), 428.
16 Ibid., 701
17 Ibid., 1317
N.B.: This article is revised and updated from one written for The Churchillian in 2014.