Happy Xmas (War is over): How the world celebrated Christmas during WW2

Christmas at Buna, Papua, 1942 American soldiers with a handmade Christmas tree decorated with surgical cotton wool and cigarette cartons
Christmas at Buna, Papua, 1942, American soldiers with a handmade Christmas tree decorated with surgical cotton wool and cigarette cartons (Colourised) | Australian War Memorial | Public Domain

Christmas during the Second World War was very different. While the highlight of Christmas dinner was a potato casserole mocked up to look like a goose, in Germany swastikas replaced fairies on top of trees.

People had to get creative back then, and most people were determined not to let the war get in the way of having a good time, even if it did mean spending the festive season with unfamiliar people or dining on the odd ox heart. Here we take a look back at Christmas both at home and on the frontline during World War II.

Christmas decorations were a casualty of war

In America and Britain, aluminium and tin were classed as essential items. This meant that there was a shortage of Christmas decorations during the war as many items such as tinsel and baubles were made from these suddenly precious metals. With no decorations available to buy in the shops, families made them at home out of non-essential items such as paper and pine cones. However, by 1941, the British authorities also had paper in their sights. ‘No retailer shall provide any paper for the packing or wrapping of goods excepting food stuffs or articles which the shopkeeper has agreed to deliver,’ the Ministry of Supply sternly decreed. Keeping presents secret until the big day was even more of a challenge after that, while newspaper was used to make decorations.

Christmas dinner looked (and tasted) a lot different

The rationing of meat, milk, eggs, lard and cheese meant housewives had to get creative when it came to Christmas dinner. There was very little chance of getting their hands on a turkey for Christmas, and other meats were thin on the ground unless they happened to own a patch of land big enough to rear their own chickens. Instead, a little creative cooking was in order.

‘Mock’ versions of festive favourites, like chicken and goose, were served up which were in reality, potato casseroles formed into the shape of a Christmas bird. It was also not unusual for offal to replace the traditional Christmas roast, with a rather off-putting fayre such as whole ox hearts being served up instead of a turkey. Christmas puddings and cakes, meanwhile, were bulked out with copious amounts of breadcrumbs when dried fruit became scarce as the war dragged on.

There was no let-up from the bombers at Christmas

The Luftwaffe bombing raids on British cities killed over forty thousand civilians and caused millions of pounds of damage to residential, commercial and industrial properties across the country. The nightly raids did not let up just because of the festive season. One particularly badly-hit city was Manchester. Known as the ‘Christmas Blitz’, the city was pounded by bombers for two nights between the 22nd and 24th of December 1940. Nearly seven hundred people lost their lives and a further two thousand were injured. As well as hundreds of tonnes of high explosives, almost two thousand incendiary bombs were dropped on the city, causing fires to break out and spread among Manchester’s tightly packed streets of commercial buildings and warehouses. Unfortunately, most of the city’s firefighters were over in Liverpool at the time, dealing with the aftermath of raids on that city, leaving only a handful to tackle the fires in Manchester. As a result, many buildings were lost that could have been saved, changing the city forever.

The Nazis did Christmas a little … differently

The Nazis weren’t keen on a traditional Christmas, especially with its religious overtones. Instead, they promoted the idea of a Nazi Christmas where the Nazi Party and Adolf Hitler were at the centre of celebrations. Christmas decorations came adorned with Nazi insignia, the fairy at the top of the tree was replaced with a swastika, father Christmas was replaced by Odin from Norse mythology and children opening their presents on Christmas Eve (as is traditional in Germany) could expect to find SS toy soldiers and replica Luftwaffe planes in their stockings. Of course, as the war dragged on and many German towns and cities became the target of Allied bombing raids, celebrating Christmas became impossible. For many Germans, a happy Christmas wouldn’t be seen again until the Nazis had been toppled from power in 1945.

GIs spent Christmas with British families

American GIs began arriving in the UK in 1942, and as preparations for the invasion of France gathered pace, more and more shipped across the Atlantic. For many of these young men, this was the first time in their lives that they would be away from home, and that hit them particularly hard at Christmas. Recognising this, schemes were set up across that country that paired homesick American troops with British families so they could enjoy Christmas together. It was very much a two-way street. While the GIs got to enjoy Christmas with their surrogate families, the families often received gifts of food that they couldn’t get on ration in return.

The Royal Christmas message became an annual event

While the first Royal Christmas Message was made by George V in 1932, it wasn’t until the Second World War that the speech became an annual tradition. George’s son, George VI, had delivered a Christmas message in 1937 but had been unable to record one the following year, while his brother, Edward VIII had not recorded a message at all having abdicated two weeks before Christmas Day. From 1939 onwards, however, the king gave a speech every year, bringing great comfort to those listening at home on Christmas Day, especially during the war years where families would eagerly gather around the radio to hear what he had to say. The Royal Christmas Message became as much a tradition in Britain as opening presents and arguing over Monopoly, and it is a tradition George’s daughter, Queen Elizabeth II, has carried on every year since ascending the throne in 1952. This year’s speech will be the sixty-ninth of her reign.

Christmas on the front line

For those American troops on the front line, receiving parcels from home was one of the few highlights of their lives. However, it wasn’t all plain sailing. ‘The saddest sight in the Army is to see some GI receive a package from home, open it all smiles, and find he is the recipient of the same Spam, politely termed ‘luncheon meat,’ which the quartermaster has been feeding him for months, perhaps years,’ wrote the journalist, Margaret Bourke-White. To avoid this disappointment occurring on Christmas Day, Bourke-White wrote a handy list of things mothers and fathers should send overseas to ensure their sons had something good to open on the big day. She recommended books, family photos and magazines, as well as goodies such as fruit cake, chocolate and candy. Many GIs were cheered to open Christmas parcels from their loved ones full of Bourke-White’s suggestions during the freezing-cold winter of 1944. Luckily for those who spent that year fighting on the frontlines, for most GIs, the following Christmas was spent back home with their families.

Get the kids what they want for Christmas - war bonds!

The British government’s War Savings Committee wanted everyone to invest in war bonds to help pay for vital equipment and supplies during the war, and Christmas was no exception. A poster issued at the time depicted a soldier, sailor and an airman telling Father Christmas to tell their families to ‘Make War Savings this Christmas!’, encouraging people to buy bonds for their loved ones instead of Christmas presents. Many people patriotically did their bit, buying bonds for family members, including for children. Not quite as exciting as a toy train or a doll for the kids of the 1940s, but at least they were doing their bit.

The USA gave the British a happy Christmas

The British War Relief Society was an umbrella group of charities set up in the United States before America entered the war that raised funds for non-military items such as clothes, food and medical supplies that were shipped over to Britain to help those in need. At Christmas, the charity distributed gifts to children, especially in areas such as East London, which had been heavily bombed during the Blitz. Another charity that brought relief to families at Christmas and throughout the year was ‘Bundles for Britain’, which was set up by a lady named Natalie Latham. Bundles for Britain was a knitting circle founded by Latham in New York City that provided sweaters, scarves, hats and gloves for Britain’s civilian population. As the war dragged on, the charity morphed into a much bigger organisation, providing aid for both Britain’s civilian population and its military personnel. Equipment shipped to Britain and its troops serving overseas included ambulances, medical equipment, operating tables and clothing. By the end of the war, Bundles for Britain had shipped $1.5 million of goods and raised a further $1 million. For her services to Britain, Natalie Latham was made an honorary Commander of the Order of the British Empire by King George VI.