Christmas in Wartime Songs of Praise


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Christmas in Wartime

Aled Jones celebrates the second Sunday in Advent at the Holy Cross church in Greenford, Middlesex. With a performance of The Prayer by Jonathan and Charlotte.


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'In 1939, the world stood on the brink of war.

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'As the country issued gas masks and filled sandbags,

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'the citizens of Greenford in Middlesex were laying

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'the foundation stone for a new church.'

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Seven weeks later, Britain was at war.

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Undaunted, the local community here kept calm and carried on.

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By the time of its dedication, back in 1941,

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the new church had faced two wartime Christmases,

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and the worst of the London Blitz, and so many others had not.

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'Holy Cross Church not only survived, but thrived.

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'And as the present-day congregation sings Advent hymns by candlelight,

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'we hear wartime Christmas memories from the home front.'

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AIR RAID SIREN BLARES

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'In wartime Greenford,

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'as the searchlights on nearby Horsenden Hill pierced through

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'the night sky to illuminate the incoming threat,

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'the lights of Christmas trees in every home

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'were extinguished by the blackout.'

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But Christians believe that even in the darkest times,

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the light of the world can never be put out.

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The story of Holy Cross is not just a tale of new churches,

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it's a tale of two churches.

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'Throughout the 1930s, Greenford had grown from a village

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'to a London suburb.

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'The churchgoing population grew accordingly

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'and could no longer fit into the old Parish Church.'

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So, this is Greenford's mediaeval church?

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-It is, yes, yes.

-It's tiny!

-It is.

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It seemed to be quite early on that they decided

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they wouldn't get rid of the old church,

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but eventually they came up with this idea of having a new church,

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but linking the two together, so they would always exist as a pair,

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and always be treated as one, in a sense, one church.

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Obviously the new church was needed for the numbers,

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but I don't think people wanted to lose the sense of continuity

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with the past by losing this older church.

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And obviously there was a lot of dedication in the area

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to build this new church,

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because it wasn't built in the easiest of times?

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Yes, yes, I mean, there was a sense other churches

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were being bombed, people were being made homeless all round,

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and this church somehow survived,

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and could be seen to be going up

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during the Blitz, and that was, yes,

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a tremendous sense of expectation and hope, and comfort,

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I think, to people.

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I'm sure there are times when Donald Harris, the rector, thought,

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"I'm never going to do this.

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"I've taken on something bigger than I can cope with,"

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but I suppose that's your Christian faith, isn't it?

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That you can believe that you can do something, and if you just

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keep going, and put the energy in and the effort, then it will come good.

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-And it did.

-And it did.

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Can you imagine what it must been like for those young families?

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That first Christmas in their new church?

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Oh, yes, it must have been wonderful, I think.

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Christmas is a wonderful time anyway, but to have so many people

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together under one roof, in this brand-new church, all singing

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to the glory of God, must have been a really wonderful experience.

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I think the feeling of Christmas during the war was that everybody

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was in the same boat, nobody came to school with large presents.

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Nobody came to school with spanking new clothes.

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With rationing at Christmas, everyone was the same,

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no-one had more than anyone else.

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I remember the first wartime Christmas was a very cold one.

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I'd always wanted a Christmas tree,

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but my father was unemployed

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for a great deal of time

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when the depression was on, so we'd never been able to have one,

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and I got up and I went out into the living room, and there,

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on top of a very big gramophone, was a very small Christmas tree.

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And I was really thrilled, and I remember that all my life.

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It was a very nice, warm, friendly place here.

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Oh, the whole church would be decorated with things.

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And of course we took part in doing all the decorations,

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which was great fun.

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This has been part of my life for so long.

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Christmas in wartime was very austere, in every respect.

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You didn't have many presents, they could be second-hand.

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Mums had an awful job trying to concoct a Christmas dinner.

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We had rabbit stew.

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I don't think many people would enjoy that these days,

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although it is lovely, I must admit I enjoyed it, I loved it.

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I can remember a rabbit pie once, and we did make Christmas puddings,

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but we had lots of carrots and things grated up into the pudding,

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and you know, sort of whatever suet you could get off of the butcher.

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And the butcher was very careful

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that it was all shared out regularly to everyone.

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Parents generally tried to keep things as normal as possible,

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but obviously there was rationing,

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so there wasn't as much food around, and toys were limited, because

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a lot of toys had been imported,

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and of course that didn't happen in the war.

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But we tried to celebrate.

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We went to Christmas services, we went carol singing,

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and we listened to the radio, because there was no television.

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I mean, the only entertainment was radio,

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and the programmes then, apart from ITMA,

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and one or two of those popular programmes, and that was always

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annoying, because the transmitters shut down when the sirens sounded,

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and if that was in the middle of ITMA, it made everybody very cross.

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My happiest memory, of course, would be getting married on Christmas Eve.

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My boyfriend and I had been going out together for about 18 months.

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Out of the blue he got this letter from the Army to say

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he had to go and join up,

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and that was to take place in about ten days' time.

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So, we had a little powwow, and he said,

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"how about getting married before I go?"

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So I said, "hmm, I'm quite ready for that."

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That particular Christmas, '41, obviously was very special to us,

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and we had 45 years together, so that was lovely.

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Although I still miss him, of course.

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'Both in peacetime and in war, some are taken and some are spared.

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'In Holy Cross churchyard is the war grave of a young airman,

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'who made the supreme sacrifice, and of his broken-hearted mother,

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'who was laid to rest with him just two years later.'

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But they also served, who never fought on the frontline.

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The lamps outside the church are a rare memorial

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to honour the Home Guard.

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Created in 1940, this band of civilian volunteers, immortalised in

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Dad's Army, of course, first began to lighten the burden

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on civil defence in the darkness of wartime.

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'And visitors crossing the threshold are reminded that God's word

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'is a lamp to our feet and a light to our way.'

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'Not every place of worship in Greenford survived the war.

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'The Baptist Church was destroyed by a direct hit,

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'but its congregation pinned a note to the door of the ruin,

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'declaring that "the church is down, but we are not".

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'Another survivor was Greenford's Salvation Army Hall.

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'Like Holy Cross, it had also been a new build to accommodate

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'the fast-growing community.'

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In wartime, the Salvationists were really

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the Church militant on the home front.

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The enemies of this army were loneliness and despair,

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and their weapons were practical,

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social and spiritual support, in the form of tea, fellowship and music.

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My husband was Aubrey James Alfred Creesey,

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and we got married in Greenford Hall on Boxing Day, 1941.

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He had a couple of days off, and then he had to go back,

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and it was four months later when we got together again.

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And then we had the photos taken, both in our uniform.

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The white strap is what the Salvation Army calls the "white wedding."

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And that's what I had, I wanted to be a full Salvationist,

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and I wanted to be a loving person for Christ.

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Oh, he was a great man. We never argued hardly at all.

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Well, I don't think we did.

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We just seemed to fall in one another's ways, that's the truth.

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He was the sergeant major of Greenford corps

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for quite a number of years.

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And when you're a bandsman, you have a commission,

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and you live to that.

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We wanted to serve God, and we did that.

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In different ways. I've never played an instrument.

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When he come to Greenford, he played the drum for a little while,

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and then he asked if he could try an instrument,

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and he tried the instrument, and that's how he went on.

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Right until the passing away of him.

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Oh, it means a lot, playing carols and that.

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I even asked, the other year, for our one or two bandspeople to come

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and play at my front door, because I couldn't get out to get to them,

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and they come and did it.

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Christmas is the birth of Christ, and Christ is with us all the time.

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My parents had a hardware shop in South Ealing,

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a western suburb of London.

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My two older brothers were called up to the forces,

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but prior to that I'd been one of the evacuees,

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and I guess I can remember 1939 and 1940

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particularly well, due to the dramatic circumstances.

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On Christmas morning I can clearly remember receiving,

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among other things, a box of dominoes.

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And it's very nostalgic, they're all there,

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to think that I last played with those 73 years ago.

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I'm totally intrigued by the inscription inside the cover,

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which I obviously didn't look after very well, it's quite tatty.

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"To Roy, with love from Dad." Three kisses.

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Now, in those days, men didn't show emotion or sentiment.

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I guess Dad's stiff upper lip wobbled a little bit.

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'London Inferno. Havoc wrought by mass night raids.

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'This is total war now, stripped of all pretence.'

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1940, I can remember it, the height of the Blitz.

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I came home, I guess after nine months,

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when many evacuees were coming home.

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On Christmas Eve it was uncannily quiet.

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All the shelterers arrived at the normal time, early evening,

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expecting normality. Got to be a raid, there is every night.

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The evening dragged on, no sirens, nothing.

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Unbeknown to us, there was an unofficial

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cessation of bombing by both sides until the 27th.

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But what's going on? We didn't know that.

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But finally everybody went to bed,

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and we had the first peaceful night's sleep for months.

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Even at that young age, I could appreciate that

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people's Christian faith was very strong.

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Even in the darkest days of 1940, when possibly all seemed lost.

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The Battle of Britain was being fought overhead.

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And yet people were still wholeheartedly the Christian faith.

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We were opposed to an evil tyranny, but with right on our side,

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and the will of God, we will prevail.

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In December, 1943,

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we had a telegram which told Mummy that my father had been wounded,

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and presumably, we didn't know how serious this was, or anything.

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He was being taken back to hospital in the Mediterranean

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theatre of war, which we discovered was back in Egypt.

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That Christmas must have been really,

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really dreadful for my mother.

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How Mum really coped, I'm not quite sure.

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She loved him desperately, and it must have been very,

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very difficult for her.

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Now, when anything happens,

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you make sure that the children think it's completely as normal.

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We knew Dad had obviously been wounded, but we didn't know...

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That was the awful thing, I think, that we didn't know how seriously.

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We had no indication whatsoever.

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I was a real daddy's girl. I was so close to him.

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I missed him dreadfully. He was so loving.

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Yes, he was an absolutely brilliant dad.

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Luckily, he'd only been wounded in the finger,

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shrapnel I think it was, so he was able to write.

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In each of his letters that were written

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around about Christmas time,

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you can read into it that he would say each time,

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"I miss Christmas and not seeing you."

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It must have been dreadful for him. Dreadful.

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I know Dad particularly had a very deep faith, very deep,

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and I think that would have sustained him when he went away.

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It makes you realise that faith must have

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carried a lot of them through the war. Definitely.

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'God bless Mummy, and Daddy, and Frank.

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'Nana and Grandad, and all my aunts and uncles.'

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I mean, we were taught prayers of course as children,

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and I do remember that I especially had a little prayer,

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not a long one, because it was cold up in the bedroom,

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and I said that every night.

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'And God bless all the soldiers, sailors and airmen,

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'and all the men and women who are fighting for freedom. Amen.'

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# I pray you'll be our eyes

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# And watch us where we go

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# And help us to be wise

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# In times when we don't know

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# Let this be our prayer

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# When we lose our way

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# Lead us to the place

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# Guide us with your grace

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# Give us faith so we'll be safe

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# La luce che tu dai

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# I pray we'll find your light

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# Nel cuore restera

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# And hold it in our hearts

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# A ricordarci che

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# When stars go out each night

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# L'eterna stella sei

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# Nella mia preghiera

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# Let this be our prayer

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-#

-Quanta fede c'e

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# When shadows fill our day

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# Lead us to a place

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# Guide us with your grace

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# Give us faith so we'll be safe

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# Sognamo un mondo senza piu violenza

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# Un mondo di giustizia e di speranza

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# Ognuno dia la mano al suo vicino

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# Simbolo di pace e di fraternita

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# La forza che ci dia

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# We ask that life be kind

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# E il desiderio che

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# And watch us from above

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# Ognuno trovi amor

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# We hope each soul will find

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# Intorno e dentro a se

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# Another soul to love

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# Let this be our prayer

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# Let this be our prayer

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# Just like every child

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# Just like every child

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# Needs to find a place

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# Guide us with your grace

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# Give us faith so we'll be safe

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# E la fede che

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# Hai acceso in noi

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# Sento che ci salverai. #

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God, whose people wait in patience

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for your coming in justice and bringing peace.

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We long to share with you the work which will bring forward

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the time when these will be a universal reality,

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and the blessing of God Almighty, the Father,

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the son and the holy spirit, be with you and remain with you always.

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(ALL) Amen.

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Not just at Christmas time, not only in time of war,

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but in all the strife and stresses of the modern world,

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the church lights the way for a community of individuals,

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living in the hope of peace on earth and goodwill to all.

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'Next week: Bill Turnbull visits St Davids in West Wales,

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'and joins in the Christmas preparations,

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'from the traditional, to the downright unusual.

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'Plus, there's festive music from Welsh tenor, Rhys Meirion,

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'and traditional carols from the city's historic cathedral.'

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Subtitles by Red Bee Media Ltd

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Aled Jones celebrates the second Sunday in Advent at Holy Cross in Greenford, Middlesex, a church built as World War II raged, and local people share their memories of wartime Christmases to a backdrop of festive hymns and carols and a performance of The Prayer by Jonathan and Charlotte.