Christmas, 1953. After years of bloody conflict, the Korean War was at an end. The headline on Christmas Eve announced that hopes for world peace were on the rise, now that a truce had been signed.
There were still some “trouble spots,” including Indo-China (modern Vietnam) where French Union troops fought the Communist Vietminh. The British, meanwhile, were trying to put down rebellions by “Red Chinese guerrillas” in Malay (modern Malaysia), and “anti-white Mau Mau tribesmen” in Kenya.
But for the most part, the world was peaceful. A special airlift flew “tons of last-minute Christmas mail” to Canadian military personnel still stationed in Korea, while over in Europe, countries that had been shattered by the Second World War enjoyed their most prosperous Christmas since that conflict ended.
“More food and consumer goods in most countries promised a happier yuletide than many youngsters could remember,” reported the Daily Province of Dec. 24, 1953.
Locally, it was anything but peaceful. Two nights before Christmas, in New Westminster, a riot broke out after police tried to evict three men and a woman in their early 20s from a cafe on Columbia Street after the four were spotted with a bottle of illicit booze.
The resulting “donnybrook” lasted 20 minutes, and saw one officer receive a broken nose and finger, his partner receive a broken wrist, and the windshield of their police cruiser smashed.
Additional police were called out to help subdue the approximately 40 rioters. Firefighters rigged hoses, planning to use them against the crowd, but the approximately 1,000 onlookers dispersed before the water could be turned on.
Somewhat ironically, the same issue of the Province reported the welcome news that the city’s liquor stores would be open until 9 p.m. on Christmas Eve — the “block-long lineups” outside liquor stores the previous year would be a thing of the past.
In 1953, Christmas was celebrated, in many homes, by the arrival of the family’s first TV set. Television was still a relatively recent addition to Canadian homes. Sales of TV sets had been spurred by the coronation, earlier in June, of Queen Elizabeth II, all seven hours of which was broadcast by KVOS Channel 12 out of Bellingham.
Newspapers leading up to Christmas were filled with ads for television sets. General Electric, RCA Victor, Philips, Addison, Motorola and Westinghouse televisions were built inside cabinets meant to make the set look like part of the furniture — in a choice of walnut, mahogany or oak. The largest screen was 21 inches, and all broadcasts were in black and white.
An ad for the Regency model of the GE Ultra Vision set boasted that “No other ‘make’ can match the rich, full tones of the Regency’s Ultra-Vision picture... deep blacks... smooth greys... radiant white.”
Woodward's had 1953 television models on markdown, ranging from $229 to $499. The ad announced that “$25 down delivers.”
Back then, a TV cost about one month’s salary. Help wanted ads from 1953 list the monthly salaries of a typewriter mechanic ($260), a bookkeeper ($180 to $200), a sanitary inspector for the B.C. Department of Health ($245 to $315) and a telephone operator ($130 to $203), the latter of which was a job for women aged 16 and up “married or single.”
At Kelly’s, the best buy on a TV set was The Harvard at $349, RCA Victor’s “modestly priced” 21-inch set. “Thrill to clear, sharp, virtually interference-free pictures with the new Super Sensitive Magic Monitor.”
The ad noted that no outside antenna was needed to tune in CBUT, a local affiliate of CBC television that had just started broadcasting that month.
A Motorola 21-inch TV, at $359.95, featured an “exclusive distance selector switch” which could tell the TV to search for either stronger local signals or distant, weaker signals.
There weren’t many channels in 1953. In addition to CBUT, Vancouverites could tune in to KING, KVOS and KOMO — but the latter, out of Seattle, required a rooftop antenna.
Radio was still a big part of every home. Newspapers featured radio listings; those for Christmas Day included the Queen’s annual Christmas message, broadcast in 1953 from Auckland, New Zealand. Other Christmas radio shows included readings from Dickens, and Sleigh Ride, a CBC show featuring Juliette, The Dreamers, and The Rhythm Pals, among other entertainers.
Radio was a cheaper alternative to TV, ranging from $29.95 for the RCA Victor Little Nipper to $119.50 for more expensive models.
At Mc&Mc, shoppers could trade in an old radio and receive $100 off the price of a Sparton 21-inch TV, regularly priced at $599.
Sixty years ago, children could expect to find under the Christmas tree a Mama Doll ($3.95 at Wosk’s) made of latex rubber with hair, or a miniature shooting gallery (99 cents at Woodward's), the five wooden pellets of which were guaranteed “safe.”
But the hottest toy that Christmas was the View-Master, a plastic stereoscope that offered “color picture stories in three dimensions” for $2.95. Additional reels cost 50 cents each.
For the family dog, there was Klix dog candy. “It contains no sugar, it’s packed with energy foods your dog loves!”
For some children, Christmas was a make-do affair. The Vancouver Sun reported that 64 boys and girls at Loyal Protestant Home in New Westminster would be returning “to their own people and relatives for Christmas Eve and Christmas Day,” but that some came from broken homes, and their parents couldn’t take them. Other families stepped in to fill the gap.
Another story noted it would be a “bleak Christmas” for the city’s 4,000 needy: those on welfare, old age pensioners, and the unemployable. There was one bright note: families that would normally receive $62.50 per month, plus $12.50 per child, would be getting a $5 Christmas bonus; while single recipients would get a $2 bonus.
At Lord Byng High School, students collected and wrapped 8,000 Christmas gifts for underprivileged children and pensioners, as part of their 15th annual Christmas Cheer Drive.
Classes held competitions to see who could collect the most toys, many of which were second-hand toys refurbished with a fresh coat of paint or hand-sewn doll clothes. Students also collected 3,400 pounds of vegetables and fruit for hampers destined for the Salvation Army, First United Church, Red Cross, and Central City Mission.
A student council noon hour show raised $36 towards a Christmas dinner for homeless men.
Newspapers of the 1950s always featured a women’s section, which focused on food, clubs, fashion, beauty and society. The December issues were filled with pictures of “holiday brides” and recipes for eggnog chiffon pie, as well as “snowball salad,” made with peach halves, cream cheese, mayonnaise, blanched almonds and maraschino cherries.
Today, we think nothing of making a long distance cell phone call to relatives at Christmas, but in 1953, overseas phone calls were via land line and had to be prearranged.
The Province reported that 52 Vancouverites had booked their overseas calls to friends and family in Germany, South Africa, Italy, Trinidad, and New Zealand, with the largest number of calls booked to the United Kingdom.
The calls, made locally through the B.C. Telephone Company, connected through the Bell Telephone Company’s overseas centre in Montreal. That company began booking Christmas calls on Dec. 15, “and within a few hours circuit time was ‘completely alloted.’”
A full-page ad in the Vancouver Sun reminded those travelling during the holiday season to buy travel insurance. It reminded them that “polio is no longer a seasonal threat — it may strike anytime!” and suggested adding a $2,500 cash polio hospitalization indemnity clause.
There was brighter news on the medical front, however. A story in the Sun reported the effectiveness of six new antibiotic drugs, including Puromycin and Bicillin. It noted, however, that antibiotic injections could sometimes cause fatal allergic reactions, and that “sulfa drugs are still excellent in the treatment of many of the infections of children.”
Elsewhere in the newspaper was a list of names and addresses: 20 couples who had been granted divorces. One divorce came after a husband was convicted of bigamy. His original sentence was two years in the penitentiary, but a month later the sentence was reduced by the Court of Appeal to 10 months.
The Christmas Eve edition of the Sun did its annual roundup of people who had to work on Christmas Day, with photos of a milkman, ambulance driver, switchboard girl, policeman, nurse and bus driver. Weather forecasters were predicting a “green Christmas,” and so there was at least one consolation: at least they’d have no trouble getting to work.
Back in Korea, Canadian soldiers who’d served in the that conflict wouldn’t return home for another year and a half; the Queen’s Own Rifles of Canada was the last infantry battalion to leave for home, in April 1955.
For 516 Canadian soldiers killed in the Korean War, there would be no homecoming. Others would be lost in the conflicts to come.
But for 1953, at least, the Christmas Eve headline could read “Peace Hopes Rise, World Rejoices: Fears of War Are Fading.”