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John Curtin Prime Ministerial Library
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John Curtin and Christmas - Three Stories from the Archives

'When men, both as individuals and as nationals realise still more fully than at present that the prime secret of the ages is that their well-being depends not on competing with each other for a small share of the fruits of Nature, but in combining to wrest from this kindly old Mother Earth the best possible living for all its children, then the spirit which animates the Christmas idea will have reached its culmination.

And the discovery and inculcation of this knowledge, which will eventually transform the world, lies at the base of the ideals of Labor.

The future is in our hands, and there is no power in the world which can prevent the realisation of our dreams providing we are true to ourselves and to the age-old idea which has survived so many changes and which is reincarnated for a brief time with each succeeding year - - the Spirit of Christmas.'

- John Curtin, Westralian Worker editorial, 23 December 1927. [1]

John Curtin in a photograph sent to his mother at Christmas, 1919. JCPML00689/4.
John Curtin in a photograph sent to
his mother at Christmas, 1919.
Records of the Curtin Family.
JCPML00689/4.

The Prime Minister's Lonely Christmas

Curtin was sworn in as Prime Minister on 7 October 1941. On the morning of 8 December, barely two months into his term, the Japanese attacked Pearl Harbour and Australia declared war on Japan. [2] Curtin and other senior ministers had to remain in Canberra over the Christmas holiday due to the grave international position. Prime Minister Curtin appealed to the Australian public to spend as little as possible on Christmas gifts and encourage them to purchase war saving certificates or stamps on behalf of friends and relatives. [3]


Telegram from John Curtin to Elsie Curtin, 23 December 1941. JCPML00402/39.

Telegram from John Curtin to Elsie Curtin,
23 December 1941.
Records of the Curtin Family.
JCPML00402/3

The press referred to the Christmas of 1941 as the PM's 'lonely Xmas'. For the first time in 25 years, the Prime Minister and Mrs Curtin spent Christmas Day apart. Mrs Curtin had spent 3 months at the Lodge and then returned to Perth to spend Christmas with the rest of the Curtin-Needham family. [4]

Curtin sent a telegram to Elsie a couple of days before Christmas:

'My dearest this is the first Christmas we have not been together. It tears my heart yet our tasks make us obedient to their high demands and we do them with all our might. I pray you a good Christmas heaven guarding you always. Your loving husband John.' [5]


Curtin invited 6 representatives from the RAAF to Christmas dinner in 1941 - see the RAAF Christmas Guests below.

The commitments of the office of Prime Minister during war time meant Curtin missed spending time with Mrs Curtin and his family for three successive Christmas Days from 1941 to 1943. In 1943, the Sunday Telegraph mentioned that 'what he would most have liked was a dinner at his home in Cottesole, in Western Australia, where Mrs Curtin... had dinner waiting for him'. Instead, Curtin spent Christmas Day in Melbourne with his two married sisters and his brother. [6]

His 1943 Christmas message to the fighting forces was a message of hope:

'The year now closing has been the brightest of the whole war, and one upon which you can look back with pride. On every front, the United Nations are on the advance. The enemy, whether in the Pacific, in Europe, or over the Atlantic is feeling the growing strength of Allied striking power... Let us pray that next Christmas will see you all back, victorious, in your homeland, for whose security you have offered all there is to give
.'[7]

The RAAF Christmas Guests

 

In Christmas 1941, Prime Minister Curtin asked the Canberra RAAF headquarters to invite six Western Australian men to be his guests for Christmas dinner. There were 30 Western Australian men on duty at the time, and the men drew lots to see who would attend Christmas dinner with the PM. The remaining men would be the Prime Minister's guests in batches of six over the next few weeks so all of the men had the opportunity to meet with Curtin. [8]

John Curtin's driver, Ray Tracy, provided his perspective on the dinner in a 1950 newspaper interview: '


John Curtin and RAAF servicemen, 1944. JCPML0018/35
John Curtin and RAAF servicemen, 1944.
Records of Frederick McLaughlin.
JCPML00018/35.

MUCH more informal was the Christmas Day he thought some of the airmen at Canberra RAAF sation might be lonely.

He telephoned and found there were West Australians there. They were invited to the Lodge, and had as pleasant a Christmas dinner as you could hope for away from home.

One of them happened to mention that there was a West Australian WAAAF at Canberra, too, so Mr Curtin decided forthwith that she and a couple of her friends should be asked to tea.

He telephoned the station and told the switchboard operator for whom he was looking. "Who's speaking?" she asked. "It's the Prime Minister here," he told her. "Yes, and it's Greta Garbo here. What's the joke?". "Well I suggest you phone Canberra 907 and find out." The switchboard girl did. "Curtin speaking," said the voice at the other end of the line.

There was a certain amount of stammering and confusion as the invitation was given to the West Australian, two others - and the switch girl. But is was evident that some sort of practical joke was still suspected.

"I'll send a car," said the PM. "You'll pick it easily because it's black, and there'll be a fat chap driving it."

That evening I drove out to the RAAF station. The girls were dressed up, but evidently still expecting some kind of blind date.

The guards rounded them up and there was flustering excitement when they found they were really in the Prime Minister's car and bound for the Lodge.

They pleaded with me for advice. "What will we do when we get there?". "What do you do when you meet a Prime Minister?""

Just do what you would do at home," I told them.

They were charming, natural and excited, and they had a first-class Christmas party. But they were rather doubtful if the girls back at the camp would believe it all, so they asked John Curtin for four autographs to prove it.' [9]

Letter from RAAF airmen to John Curtin 4 January 1942. JCPML00398/30
Letter from RAAF airmen to John Curtin, 4 January 1942. Records of the Curtin Family. JCPML00398/30.

The invited members of the RAAF thanked Curtin for dinner at the Lodge in a letter from the 4 January 1942.

The memory of your kind act will be cherished by us as one of the most outstanding in the cavalcade of our experience. [10]


Who is Sylvia?

On the 13 November 1942, a six year old girl from Perth sent Prime Minister John Curtin a telegram:

'Sending my Christmas pennies, lots and lots, for your soldiers at your office at Canberra. Will this help to make you better? I am six - Sylvia.' [11]

Curtin had been ill during this period of 1942.

The Prime Minister was reportedly touched by this gift, and made it known that he wanted to find out the name of 'Sylvia' so he could thank her. The media publicised the search for 'Sylvia' and the trail led them to Sylvia Harris, daughter of Mr and Mrs P.G. Harris of Nedlands, W.A. Mrs Harris wrote: 'My husband and myself are so proud to be living in your country, where the people have a leader who is so much truer and finer than some other leaders'. Curtin noted that Sylvia was a fine example and he was 'as proud of her as I am certain her parents are'. [12]



Telegram written by 'Sylvia' to PM Curtin, 13 November 1942.
Telegram written by 'Sylvia' to PM Curtin,
13 November 1942. From: [Personal Papers of Prime
Minister Curtin] Correspondence 'S', 8 July 1942 -
15 January 1943. Records of the Prime Minister's Dept.
JCPML00809/191. Original held by National Archives of
Australia, CA 12, M1415, 191.

Examples of Christmas cards, letters and correspondence from 1943 may be viewed through the National Archives of Australia web site (M1416, 76).

John Curtin holding a lump of snow, Canberra, September 1929. JCPML00450/2.
John Curtin holding a lump of snow, Canberra, September 1929.
Records of the Curtin Family. JCPML00450/2.


Endnotes

1. John Curtin Prime Ministerial Library. Records of the Australian Labor Party WA Branch. Westralian Worker editorial, 23 December 1927. JCPML00302/563.

2. Black, D. (n.d.) Biography of John Curtin. John Curtin Prime Ministerial Library, Bentley, W.A. Retrieved 16 December, 2010, from http://john.curtin.edu.au/resources/biography/details.html.

3. John Curtin Prime Ministerial Library. Records of the Curtin Family. P.M.'s first lonely Xmas. Daily Telegraph, 25 December 1941. JCPML00964/41.

4. John Curtin Prime Ministerial Library. Records of the Commonwealth of Australia. Digest of Decisions and Announcements and Important Speeches by the Prime Minister, no. 9, 26 November - 2 December 1941, p. 23. JCPML00110/14.

5. John Curtin Prime Ministerial Library. Records of the Curtin Family. Telegram from John Curtin to Elsie Curtin, 23 December 1941. JCPML00402/39.

6. John Curtin Prime Ministerial Library. Records of the Curtin Family. The Prime Minister. Christmas dinner. Sunday Telegraph, 26 December 1943. JCPML00964/108.

7. Ibid.

8. John Curtin Prime Ministerial Library. Records of the Curtin Family. W.A. reunion at Canberra. Sydney Morning Herald, 26 December 1941. JCPML00964/42.

9. John Curtin Prime Ministerial Library. Records of the Curtin Family. I drove the great!, Daily News, 16 March 1950. JCPML00964/189.

10. John Curtin Prime Ministerial Library. Records of the Curtin Family. Letter from RAAF airmen to John Curtin, 4 January 1942. JCPML00398/30.

11. John Curtin Prime Ministerial Library. Records of the Curtin Family. Curtin's illness touches the heart of six-year old. Daily Mirror, 13 November 1942. JCPML00964/80.

12. John Curtin Prime Ministerial Library. Records of the Curtin Family. Curtin finds answer to query: 'Who is Sylvia'. Daily Mirror, 21 November 1942. JCPML00964/81.