Christmas in the First World War

Christmas during the First World War

The First World War was a time of need for all people.

aus: "Wenn's in Wien weihnachtet", Christine Schäffer, Edition Mokka, ISBN 978-3-902693-63-1


In these years, Christmas was often a stark reminder of the suffering everybody went through. Sometimes however it could be brightened with little joys that gave people hope.  

Grete Witeschnik-Edlbacher for example was born in 1908 in Vienna. She grew up in a middle class family. The school mate of her younger brother, Richard Sirsch, who had the nickname “Bengele”, rascal, because he was so thin, died at 17 years old from lung tuberculosis. She tells about the poverty during the war and that there were neither resources – such as sugar –  nor money to decorate the Christmas tree with sweets. Her mother had resorted to decorate it with home-made pastries that tasted like bread. When Grete and her mother were invited to “Bengele”, they were amazed by the Christmas tree which was covered in bonbons in pink wrappings. Bengele gave each of them one wrapped sweet – but when they unraveled it they realized inside was no sweet treat but only wood. Their anticipation turned into disappointment and then mirth. Bengele, who was responsible for this decoration, laughed with them – despite the poverty he remained happy and content.

Grete also mentions how little she received as Christmas presents and that it was usually hand-me-downs. One Christmas her and her brother each received a book. They were large and bound in red linen. Grete, her mother and brother used to read a lot back then, especially out loud – if there was a picture, the reading was interrupted and the image was discussed. These books actually simply were magazines bound together, which is not commonly done anymore.

  • Presents for Young and Old

    Giving presents on Christmas Eve has only become common in Vienna at the beginning of the 19th century. Especially children received treats but gradually also adults gave each other bigger and smaller presents.

    The children – of wealthy families – primarily received toys. Girls got dolls and toys that would prepare them for their role as a mother and house wife. Boys got drums, guns or sabres – things that hailed from the military.

     In 1836 Frances Trollop reports how splendid the Christmas festivities where at Princess Metternich’s. There were many children, exuberant in the face of a glowing Christmas tree and ecstatic upon beholding their presents. They all started to play with their toys, a wooden horse being ridden there, a girl acquainting herself with her new magnificent doll. Tiny tea sets or libraries en miniature and more were distributed among all the little darlings who were as happy as they could only be on Christmas Eve. 

     Of course, with this new tradition of gift giving the economy grew as well: In 1827 already there were seven toy makers in Vienna and also doll manufactories were found more often. Old dolls were made from leather and filled with saw dust and their faces resembled those of adults, not children. With the discovery of papier-mâché, their heads could be fashioned easier and more realistically. Their hair was either painted on or made from real human hair – artificial hair had not been invented yet!

    One famous establishment was the “k.k. erbländisch- privilegierte Berchtesgadner Holz- und Kinderspielerei-Waren-Fabrik Johann Haller“, a toy maker with an imperial privilege, marking him as a master of his craft. This factory produced little painted wooden figurines, self-driving carriages, writing utensils and so forth and even supplied the imperial family. 

    The children of Vienna also enjoyed little trains or cut-out forms they could colour in. 

    Towards the end of the 19th century, laterna magica or model kits grew in popular, just like an informative book, for example about geography. 

    Adults would allow themselves watches, angora or American golden fountain-pens if they had the money. As most citizens did not, they hoped for cheap remnants, for example in fabric. 

    It is important to remember that poorer families could only afford a nice meal or a self-made wooden toy. They simply did not have any money left for more. Friedrich Schlögel forcefully pointed out this dichotomy between rich and poor, for example in his book “Wiener Blut”, Viennese Blood, from 1873. He called out the hypocrisy of rich people that closed their eyes from misery but then claimed they had helped the poor. He also argued that the greatest misery was not found on the streets, clad in rags and begging for alms, but passes by with pale cheeks and hasty steps. He says true misery is found in a half-blind seamstress who stitches her fingers raw to make a beautiful satin dress for a rich man’s girlfriend, while she has nothing to eat but a watery soup. True misery is also an orphan that has to work day in, day out just to receive some dry bread and a dog stable to sleep in, with no friendly look ever directed at her. These people do not ask for alms and hold their hands up, showing off their gruesome ailments to buy a rich person’s pity. But for Schlögel, their silent worry and pain should sound louder to the ones around them than the shouting of a professional beggar.  

    Today, there are of course still discrepancies between richer and poorer families, but they are luckily less prominent in Vienna. And most importantly, more measures are being taken to support people in need – charities have their peak at Christmas. But in Vienna we do not simply and coarsely ask for donations, on the contrary: some Viennese Christmas markets have thought of creative and entertaining ways to make a donation; the well known radio station Ö3 advertises for the “Wundertüte” wherein old phones are placed and subsequently sold to benefit people in need; Licht ins Dunkel works together with celebrities for their at their big charity event; etc.!



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