Uncertainty and Hope: Christmas in wartime Britain on the Home Front

How the First World War made Christmas history

World wars, in recent years, are the greatest events to have affected Christmas (before the current global situation of Covid-19). We most notably remember the Christmas Truce of 1914 during the First World War where soldiers from opposing trenches met in the middle to cease fighting and enjoy Christmas day together. They shared gifts, laughed, and played football until the sunset and those who had emerged were commanded back down into their trenches.

Finally, some ‘normal’ Christmases?

The interwar years were a large break which allowed Britain to celebrate the holidays in some peace and Christmas cheer. As the 1920s and 1930s progressed, the Art Deco era flourished and so did its Christmas celebrations.

Holly and Barbed Wire, Guns and Tinsel

For Britain during the Second World War, Christmas of 1939 and 1940 were spent almost entirely alone with major Allies having fallen to the Nazis by summer 1940. By the mid war years, Christmas was completely changed and proved tough; but Britain found some ways to improvise and bring some joy, even if it was black market meat from someone you couldn’t trust. But in wartime, needs must. Unlike the First World War, Britain was facing a war at home, against the Luftwaffe and supplying active support to the forces and vital industry needed at the time.

1939

At the very beginning of the war, with the declaration only being in September, stringent Civil Defence measures were put in place to protect the people from suspected air raids. By Christmas of 1939, everyone was well acquainted with blackouts, gas masks and air raid sirens.

Image of women around piano © IWM CH 11829

1940

In 1940, just months before Christmas, the Nazis did come. In July, Germany launched an invasion of Britain which became known as the Battle of Britain, ending on 31 October 1940. Due to the failure of this invasion, Germany then tried bombing Britain into surrender. This became known as the Blitz.

WRNS holding dolls made of old stockings © IWM A 13418

1941

1941 brought more bombs raining down on multiple cities. A few more items were added to the ration list such as cheese, a coupons system for canned/processed foods and finally clothing. Clothing rationing hugely impacted gifts.

Two women wearing Siren Suits © Underwood Archives

1942–1943

While 1941 had brought hope that Britain would no longer stand alone in the war, rationing struggles and shortages only continued. In 1942, the GIs (US soldiers) arrived from America bringing sweets and luxury goods with them. Because of this, many British families wanted to offer a GI lodgings — then at Christmas time, he could bring gifts from America.

WRNS around a Christmas tree and with a cake © IWM A 26892

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Tyne & Wear Archives & Museums

Tyne & Wear Archives & Museums

Major regional museum, art gallery and archives service. We manage a collection of nine venues across Tyneside and the Archives for Tyne and Wear.