With war declared throughout most of Europe, Princess Olga of Yugoslavia, the wife of the Prince Regent, Paul, was in a difficult position during that first Christmas of the Second World War. Like many of Europe’s royalty, she had family members on both the Allied and Axis sides. However, as Yugoslavia was still officially neutral, it had already been arranged that Olga’s sister, Princess Elisabeth of Greece and Denmark, who was married to the wealthy Bavarian aristocrat, Count Karl Theodor ‘Toto’ Toerring, would travel from Munich to Belgrade to celebrate the Orthodox Christmas (on 7 January 1940) at Olga and Paul’s luxurious home, the White Palace (Beli Dvor). Elisabeth’s children, Hans Viet and Helen were already in Belgrade having been brought there by their mother from Munich, in early November, at their Aunt Olga’s request. The presence of these extended family members was fortuitous as the Yugoslav royal couple’s sons, Alexander and Nicholas, would not be present in Belgrade over the Festive Season, as both were spending Christmas in England, where they attended boarding school.
Olga had always adored Christmas and was meticulous in her preparations. Her old nurse, Miss Kate Fox, who lived in London, was always sent a detailed list of the Princess’ requirements many months in advance. Christmas puddings from Fortnum and Mason’s were a particular family favourite, as were toys and jokes from Hamley’s celebrated Regent Street toyshop. However, wartime was playing havoc with Olga’s attempts at gift-giving. Hamley’s catalogue had been late in reaching the Serbian capital and the choice was limited. Nevertheless, the Princess soon selected a ‘nice [imitation] Xmas pudding with toys to pull out’ for the entertainment of her two-year-old daughter Elizabeth and the Toerring children. However, when this item failed to materialise, Olga was left with little choice but to scour the local shops for toys with which to fill the children’s Christmas stockings. Her sense of ‘despair’ was only heightened when a luxurious array of gifts arrived, via the diplomatic bag, from her sister, Princess Marina, the Duchess of Kent, in London.
Olga’s gifts were more of a practical nature. When she learned that foodstuffs were scarce in Bavaria, the Princess provided the Toerrings with a Christmas parcel filled with groceries and some soap. Princess Elisabeth and her husband arrived in Belgrade by rail just in time to watch King Peter (who lived in the Royal Palace adjacent to the White Palace at the Royal Compound in the suburb of Dedinje) preside over the traditional Orthodox Christmas Eve Badnjak celebrations. During this event, a troop of the Royal Guard accompanied a decorated gun carriage bearing the large Badnjak (Yule) log which was then carried into the Royal Palace and placed in a large hearth in the hall to burn throughout the Festive celebrations. The Prince Regent and Princess Olga (wrapped up against the cold in a full-length fur coat) accompanied the King throughout the ceremony and then joined him in raising a toast to the good health of his officers. The whole proceedings were captured for the first time on cine film.
In the evening, after Prince Paul had rung the traditional Christmas bell, Elizabeth, Helen and Hans-Veit ‘rushed in’ to the drawing room to gaze at the Christmas tree candles and then open their gifts with the aid of their nurses. The family then ate a traditional Christmas meal rounded off by some good English Christmas puddings. But Olga was soon in despair to receive news by letter that none of her Christmas presents (including those for her sons and a cheque for Miss Fox) had reached England. Clearly, even royal parcels were not exempt from the vagaries of war! Yet, there was little time to mope as Prince Paul and Princess Olga had to leave on a four-day morale-boosting visit to Zagreb.