Once again, (and, as usual, far sooner than those of us who haven’t finished the shopping yet had expected), we are fast approaching Christmas. A season as much associated with ideas of peace and goodwill as with gift giving and good food. Christmas presents have become an inescapable part of the season, one which many people (or at least those who are very well organised) start to think about a couple of months in advance.
In October 1914 one young girl seems to have been doing exactly that and her Christmas list was certainly more ambitious than most! Princess Mary, the 17 year old daughter of King George V, decided she wanted to send a gift to:
“every sailor afloat and every soldier at the Front”
Originally wanting to pay for this from her personal allowance, she was recommended to adopt the more practical idea of loaning her name and support to a countrywide campaign. People responded in droves. The war which was to be ‘over by Christmas’ was showing no signs of coming to an end and many families were facing the fact their loved ones would not be home for the holidays.
The Princess Mary Christmas Gift, each one contained in an embossed brass tin bearing the Princess’ profile, went on to become one of the most popular souvenirs of the Great War. Many of them were kept long afterwards, such as the one above recently offered to the Maritime Museum and originally received by 24 year old William ‘Billy’ Galvin. Billy was a Royal Navy Stoker on the HMS Lion, and received the ‘smoker’s gift’. Billy’s tin contained cigarettes and tobacco alongside a pipe, all of which can be seen above proudly displayed with the Princess’ accompanying Christmas Card.
The careful setting and preservation of this gift is by no means unusual and demonstrates how well received they were. The gifts were simple, small luxuries like cigarettes and chocolates that those away from home might be missing, but they offered troops (and nurses serving overseas) a little home comfort at a time when it was much needed. Another example of the Princess Mary Christmas Gift box, which is on permanent display in the Museum of Liverpool’s From waterfront to Westen Front exhibition, is featured in the 2014 advent calendar.
Ideas of gift giving and charity have long been connected with Christmas and in 1899 Queen Victoria had sent a similar brass box, decorated with her profile and containing chocolate, to troops involved in the Boer War. Other nations sent similar gifts in 1914 and in the 21st century the idea has been taken up again by a charity that sends Christmas boxes each year to all British troops serving overseas on Christmas Day. A hundred years on, for those away from home and families, parcels of practical necessities and creature comforts still act as a lifeline.
From everyone at the Maritime Museum we would like to wish you a very Merry Christmas, and for those spending the holidays away from their loved ones may the New Year see you soon reunited.
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