Uncertainty and Hope: Christmas in wartime Britain on the Home Front
By Katie Wright, Digital Intern at Discovery Museum, for the Second World War and Holocaust Partnership Programme (SWWHPP) with Imperial War Museums (IWM).
Christmas has been shaped and changed in many ways throughout history. It has changed almost entirely since the earlier medieval celebrations. It became recognisable to us around the mid/early Victorian era when Prince Albert, Queen Victoria’s husband, brought Christmas trees from Germany.
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.
The effects were so profound on some men that they refused to fight the next day; this, of course, resulted in court marshals, a very controversial topic often not covered in the First World War.
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.
For a large majority across the world and in Britain, we can’t forget the long-lasting effects of the Great Depression which resulted in unemployment, especially in the north east of England. This mainly resulted in a lack of presents for children and less food on the table at Christmas.
But at that time, for children, the presents could be simple — receiving an orange was a popular present amongst the plain and repetitive foods served throughout the year. For the rest of the family, it was about being together at Christmas, decorating the tree together and helping each other. But the Second World War would soon change it all.
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.
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.
As recorded by various sources, in Newcastle, there were several air raid warnings in 1939. These were false alarms and only sounded in precaution. Many who had been evacuated in September 1939 were brought home as many were fooled by the ‘phoney war’ era, by which no air raids occurred and little fighting was obvious as France was yet to fall.
Because of this, morale was high, some families were still together and the war seemed only a near future. I like to see 1939 as the last Christmas before everything really changed — one last celebration to say goodbye to loved ones in the forces and enjoy the peace and joy.
Of course, there was a slight change — a tradition not often known today — the Church bells couldn’t ring out on Christmas day as that would signal an invasion from the Nazis which was highly expected.
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.
By Christmas of 1940, these bombing campaigns were well underway; notably in Newcastle, it was a big target for bombing due to its shipyards, railways and factories. Christmas of 1940 in Newcastle was heavily affected by bombings. Rationing had also increased by the end of 1940; by March, meat, tea and margarine had been added to the rations list.
Presents would also change in 1940, with most materials and clothing not yet being rationed, it wasn’t too hard to come by something for a family member. Factories were now being used for ammunitions and other production so some children’s toys like dolls were harder to get.
In response, the women’s services across the forces — ATS (Auxiliary Territorial Service), WRNS (Women’s Royal Naval Service) and WAAF (Women’s Auxiliary Air Force) — all made dolls from old wool, stockings and other reused materials. This continued over the war. In 1940, however, the most popular present was soap — this wasn’t rationed until 1942.
Paper was rationed in 1940. There wasn’t always anything to wrap presents in at Christmas (unless you used old newspapers). This change meant that most presents weren’t a surprise due to the shortage.
Christmas dinner had to be adapted for the first time in 1940; leading to many home grown substitutes for meat (meat was very hard to afford at Christmas without using too many coupons up). Woolton Pie, created in April 1940 by Lord Woolton and released in the news by the Ministry of Food was a vegetable pie which could be easily adapted to the vegetables in season — and all ingredients could be grown at home. There are a few recipes online and it remains a popular dish, a good substitute for vegetarians even in modern day.
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.
Presents certainly began to take a homemade form, much more than 1940. With the difficulties of buying new clothes for each other and even more so, food — homemade clothing such as knitted items became more popular.
The ‘siren suit’ had become popular in previous years from 1939. It was an all-in-one garment that could be worn over night clothes, like a dressing gown but for the first time for women — with trouser legs. This meant it was very warm and convenient to throw on in the middle of the night if there was an air raid. A convenient, practical present for wartime.
Wines and spirits were plentiful, but French goods were almost completely gone, and imported fruit was extremely expensive. Christmas presents became tougher to come by without using the black market. Petrol shortages and driver availability meant that deliveries became harder to receive; but this wasn’t common and most people shopped locally.
It’s interesting to see how wartime civilians faced similar restrictions to us today living through a global pandemic, but on a more extreme level. Shops could be empty as well, with many damaged during the air raid and stock completely destroyed.
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.
Soap was added to the rationing list in 1942, so the previously popular gift was now much harder to come by. Gifts were mostly homemade by this point.
Not only were food and gifts home grown and homemade but trees soon became harder to come by. Some families resorted to making their own Christmas trees from chicken wire and ferns/tree branches before adding their old decorations to it. Other decorations in the house could be homemade, such as paper chains, a popular decoration that is still made today and easy to do.
1943 brought more of the same struggles but there was certainly more hope since the Americans arrived in 1942. The tide was finally turning in the Allies’ advantage with victories against the Nazis, with the Russians now pushing the Nazis back from their front line.
By 1943 material shortages had led to hot water bottles being harder to come by so in the frosty winter months of Britain people would place a brick in the oven and wrap it in cloth to warm beds.
By 1944, the V2 rocket had devastated London. This was fiercely counteracted by the D-Day landings that had begun in June of 1944. While hope seemed close in Christmas 1944, it wouldn’t be until 1945 that we would have a return to what felt like the past.
With the devastating impact of the Second World War, Christmas 1945 wouldn’t quite feel the same but there would be peace from bombings when war was over in May 1945 on VE day.
Most men away in the services wouldn’t return until 1946 and some wouldn’t return at all. My great grandad, John Harry Wright, is an example; he died in a hospital in India from polio in April 1946. He left his son (my grandad) and his wife, Beatrice Wright. She also lost her father at the start of the war in 1940. For so many women, this was the reality and Christmas couldn’t really be the same for them, with little family to gather round at the time of year.
On a more positive note, from 1949 clothes rationing ended and slowly, other rationing ended until all was abolished in 1954. Gradually, Christmas returned to a more recognisable event and reached the point that we see it today. With the 1950s and end of rationing came new fashion as Dior created the New Look. And soon, cars, TVs and more entertainment we associate with our Christmases today, would begin to appear. However, they remained highly unaffordable.
With the current restrictions we face under the pandemic, and the constant uncertainty, remember that it wasn’t the first time for the nation to face Christmas in unusual circumstances. And traditions can adapt — but Christmas will still always be Christmas, whatever you make of it.