How Christmas was Celebrated at Home and on the Front During World War II

Photo Credit: 1. Arthur Tanner / Fox Photos / Getty Images 2. Bettmann / Getty Images
Photo Credit: 1. Arthur Tanner / Fox Photos / Getty Images 2. Bettmann / Getty Images

Christmas is a time everyone looks forward to – especially when a war is raging on. It could be argued the celebrations are of even greater importance while soldiers are off fighting, as a way to not only keep up morale, but to allow those serving a sense of home and normalcy. Here’s how Christmas was celebrated both on the front and at home during the Second World War.

Christmas on the American Home Front

Christmas on the Home Front looked a lot different when the United States entered the war. The rationing of food and materials meant families had to get creative with their celebrations, which turned into smaller, more local affairs.

American troops handing out toys to Italian children
American troops hand out presents to children living in an Italian city destroyed during the German retreat, 1945. (Photo Credit: Brandt / Hulton Archive / Getty Images)
American soldiers standing around a sink while they peel potatoes
Members of the 101st Infantry Regiment peeling potatoes, 1944. (Photo Credit: Bettmann / Getty Images)

Wartime rationing meant sugar, butter, sweets and meat – including ham – were limited, and while not on the list, so too were turkeys, as an effort was made to send them to troops serving at home and abroad. To provide their families with something special on Christmas Day, some housewives saved up food ration stamps to obtain extra food.

Parisian children standing with toys in their arms
Parisian children standing with presents during a toy distribution, 1944. (Photo Credit: AFP / Getty Images)
Two American Red Cross workers standing in front of a large pile of packages
American Red Cross workers at the Dutch New Guinea base checking packages for troops fighting on Leyte and in the Philippines, 1944. (Photo Credit: American Red Cross / FPG / Hulton Archive / Getty Images)

Blackouts on the West Coast and dim-outs on the East meant outdoor lights were frowned upon. As well, with materials such as fuel and rubber being diverted to the war effort, travel was discouraged and people resorted to hand-making gifts or purchasing those made from cardboard, wood and new plastics. The government pushed the purchase of war bonds as both a generous present and a way to contribute to the war effort.

Children playing with Christmas presents
American children playing with Christmas presents, 1942. (Photo Credit: Bettmann / Getty Images)
Santa Claus shaking the hand of a little boy while others watch
Santa Claus shaking hands with a little boy. His parents are entertaining Cpl. Austin Ready and Dody Wilson of the Women’s Army Corps, 1944. (Photo Credit: Fox Photos / Getty Images)
Children gathered around a table with a microphone atop it
Children in New York City speaking on the radio to their loved ones in England, 1945. (Photo Credit: Bettmann / Getty Images)

With the majority of the country’s working-age men serving overseas, women had to step in to fill the traditional role of playing Santa Claus, and the lack of manpower meant there was a shortage of Christmas trees. As such, the American public purchased artificial ones, which they decorated with homemade decorations made from paper and string. All decorations originating from Germany and Japan were discarded at the start of the war.

Celebrating Christmas while fighting a war

Service members did their best to make the most of a tough situation, and while their Christmas celebrations were less than traditional, they allowed them to feel a sense of normalcy in the face of danger.

Service band and Santa Claus sitting in front of a train
Servicemen playing the accordion, trumpet, banjo and guitar perform with a man dressed as Santa Claus, 1943. (Photo Credit: Jim Heimann Collection / Getty Images)
Belgian soldiers sitting at tables during Christmas celebrations
Belgian soldiers celebrating Christmas in exile in the Western Command Area, 1940. (Photo Credit: Keystone / Getty Images)

Nothing made troops more excited than receiving gifts from their loved ones. While the Army and Naval post offices did their best to ensure parcels were delivered on time, the amount of mail and the distance meant the task was difficult. To ensure the majority of presents were received by Christmas, it was recommended families mail them out between September 15 and October 15.

British children piled around an American tank
US Army Engineer Station holds a Christmas party for English war orphans, 1942. (Photo Credit: Keystone / Hulton Archive / Getty Images)
Members of the 101st US Airborne Division sitting around a table decorated for Christmas
101st US Airborne Division at Christmas dinner in Bastogne, 1944. (Photo Credit: Photo12 / UIG / Getty Images)
Aviation Cadets spelling out "MERRY XMAS"
Aviation Cadets at the Southeast Air Corps Training Center, 1941. (Photo Credit: Bettmann / Getty Images)

There was also the anticipation of a much-needed (and deserved) Christmas dinner. The Armed Services went out of its way to ensure American troops were provided with a meal that reminded them of home: turkey and ham with all the fixings. Even those on the front were provided turkey dinners when possible.

Two American soldiers decorating a Christmas tree outside
American soldiers decorating a Christmas tree in a captured German town, 1944. (Photo Credit: Bettmann / Getty Images)

The majority of military bases arranged for in-house celebrations for the troops, including visits from Santa Claus, concerts and parties. Quarters, including hospitals, were decorated with tin and foil decorations, and Christmas services were held on all fronts. American forces stationed in other countries often went out of their way to put together holiday celebrations for the local children, as well.

The Blitz drastically changed Christmas celebrations in Britain

Being at the center of the fighting in Europe, the United Kingdom faced harsh restrictions that affected their celebrations. This was influenced by a number of war-related factors, including The Blitz bombings.

Soldiers gathered around a table with Christmas pudding
Soldiers from the Pioneer Corps having a break from clearing London’s air raid sites to have Christmas pudding, 1940. (Photo Credit: William Vanderson / Fox Photos / Getty Images)
British children holding their Christmas presents
Christmas gifts for children evacuated from Peckham, London to Billinghurst, Petworth and Pulborough during WWII, 1940. (Photo Credit: Fox Photos / Hulton Archive / Getty Images)

During The Blitz, families based in London spent Christmas Eve in air raid shelters, and outdoor lights were banned due to the blackout. Underground canteens were used to provide shelter and food for those who’d been bombed out of their homes or were working as fire and air wardens, and many children were sent to rural communities to escape the danger.

Child sleeping in an air raid shelter decorated for Christmas
Child sleeping in an air raid shelter decorated for Christmas, 1940. (Photo Credit: Fox Photos / Getty Images)
British bomber pilot holding a sprig of mistletoe
Bomber pilot with the British Coastal Command affixing a sprig of mistletoe to his plane, 1940. (Photo Credit: Reg Speller / Fox Photos / Getty Images)

As in the US, gifts were homemade due to restrictions and the National Savings Committee discouraging impractical spending. Ways to support the war effort were promoted, and those who chose to give presents had to wrap the items in old newspaper, as there were limits on how paper could be used. To ensure the children of servicemen received gifts, the YMCA delivered thousands of pounds worth of presents.

Two women making egg cosies at the dining room table
Women making egg cosies, inspired by the presents made during WWII rationing, 1947. (Photo Credit: Kurt Hutton / Picture Post / Hulton Archive / Getty Images)
Female Red Cross volunteer displaying canned and boxed rations
Volunteer displays the contents of a Red Cross Christmas package for British POWs in German camps. (Photo Credit: Fox Photos / Getty Images)
Two women holding armfuls of Christmas crackers
Workers at the Navy, Army and Air Force Institute warehouse in London gather Christmas crackers and other treats to send to the troops, 1939. (Photo Credit: Reg Speller / Fox Photos / Getty Images)

Christmas dinners looked and tasted different than those served pre-war. As in the US, families saved ration coupons for the big day, and those unable to do so replaced old favorites with “mock” foods. Typically made of vegetables and non-rationed meat, these included a mock black treacle made from gravy powder and golden syrup, as well as ox heart, which was the same approximate size as turkey and could be carved in much the same way.

Air Raid Patrol members hanging Christmas decorations in an underground shelter
Air Raid Patrol members hang Christmas decorations in a cubicle of a shelter beneath a cinema in South London, 1940. (Photo Credit: Fred Morley / Fox Photos / Getty Images)
Belgian sergeant decorating a Christmas tree
Sergeant with the Free Belgian Forces in Britain lighting candles on a Christmas tree during celebrations in exile in the Western Command Area, 1940. (Photo Credit: Keystone / Getty Images)

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To raise spirits, the BBC ran a special Christmas Day radio program, which featured a speech by King George VI. It quickly became an annual tradition, which continues to this day. For some families, the celebrations also included a visit from American troops, who brought with them gifts of rationed food that were greatly appreciated.

Clare Fitzgerald

Clare Fitzgerald is a Writer and Editor with eight years of experience in the online content sphere. Graduating with a Bachelor of Arts from King’s University College at Western University, her portfolio includes coverage of digital media, current affairs, history and true crime.

Among her accomplishments are being the Founder of the true crime blog, Stories of the Unsolved, which garners between 400,000 and 500,000 views annually, and a contributor for John Lordan’s Seriously Mysterious podcast. Prior to its hiatus, she also served as the Head of Content for UK YouTube publication, TenEighty Magazine.

In her spare time, Clare likes to play Pokemon GO and re-watch Heartland over and over (and over) again. She’ll also rave about her three Maltese dogs whenever she gets the chance.

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