For those in charge of Britain’s war effort, Christmas was a dangerous time of year, as seasonal cheer came up against the grim reality of war. Shortages began to appear in essential items like sugar, bread, petrol and paper, and Christmas cooking ingredients were difficult to come by. But national morale was considered by the government a priority, and Christmas was marked by a conscious attempt to celebrate as usual – keeping the old traditions, and promoting Christmas cheer.
While traditional Christmas extravagance became unfashionable – and impossible – Britain continued to embrace the Christmas spirit. Songs, useful gifts, charitable acts and ingenious cookery were all encouraged. And while this became harder as the war drew on – air raids and absent loved ones were a way of life – it was a deliberate moment of defiance against the death, destruction and deprivation of war. Here are 10 wartime ways in which Britain marked the Christmas season.
Shopping for Christmas gifts
Wartime meant a change of attitude for Christmas shopping. For children, military-themed toys – soldiers, guns, uniforms – were all the rage. Among adults, the enthusiasm for Christmas gift giving was as strong as ever, but the moral consensus was to avoid frivolity. As one advertisement said: “It is in keeping with the times that only practical presents shall be given this Christmas.”
Shoppers were encouraged to give useful, sensible items, particularly to their male relatives at the front. Shops entered the season with a raft of tools and tokens to help the fighting man. Suggested gifts included soldiers’ work cases and wallets; warm gloves; pipe sets; correspondence cases; safety razors; tinder lighters and watches. Cigarettes, ‘the fuel of the British Army’, were particularly in demand.
The ‘Con Amore’ brand offered cigarettes with a regimental crest embossed, for the ultimate personal touch for absent sweethearts. Its slogan was: “In Trench, Mess, Billet or on Shipboard, every smoke will remind him of you – the giver.”
Sending messages and gifts to the front
With so many men and women spending Christmas away from home, the demand for parcels at Christmas was greater than ever. Over the entire course of the war, the army postal service sent 114 million parcels from Britain to conflict zones, and 2 billion letters.
Army postmen were dubbed ‘Santa Claus in khaki’, as they laboured to deliver care packages to the front line and bring messages home in time for Christmas. Back in Britain, families were sending food, clothing, cigarettes and tobacco. Charities also rallied the British public to show their support for the troops, sending Christmas gifts en masse. Footballs, harmonicas, books, cigarettes and even Christmas puddings were sent in bulk.
In Christmas 1914, Princess Mary, daughter of George V, launched her own charitable Christmas initiative: a metal case of cigarettes for every soldier in the army.
Making do in the trenches on the western front
The Christmas truce of 1914 is legendary as a moment of festive goodwill. An unofficial ceasefire allowed soldiers along the western front to emerge from the trenches, meet enemy combatants, exchange gifts and even play games.
Fear of mutiny meant that a rerun was strongly discouraged by army authorities in subsequent years, but soldiers still marked each Christmas as it arrived in the trenches with Christmas parcels and extra rations. Foul weather, flooded dug-outs and constant danger took a toll on the Christmas spirit. The British press, keen to present an official, positive view of war, published photographs and illustrations of soldiers opening parcels from home, or cheerfully cooking their Christmas pudding in a pot made from a German helmet.
But a cartoon from the soldier-artist Bruce Bairnsfather suggests a less cheerful Christmas for many: the dawn of a glum Christmas day, far from home in a war-torn landscape.
Christmas in hospital
Both in Britain and in war zones, many servicemen and women spent their Christmas in military hospitals. A bright, cheerful, healing environment was central to medical ethos, and at Christmas hospital staff went to particular effort to decorate the wards and entertain the wounded. Hospitals often threw parties and concerts for their patients.
A base hospital in France preparing for Christmas during the First World War, date unknown. (© The Keasbury-Gordon Photograph Archive/Alamy)
Christmas in the navy
Christmas at sea came with its own traditions, as those serving in the Royal Navy during the war – some 380,000 people by 1918 – discovered. Their Christmas was formal and highly regulated in comparison with forces on land: after a religious service on the ship, the men would assemble in their messes, with tables decorated for Christmas.
Here they were visited by the captain and officers, who would take a seat at each table in turn, sampling the food they had prepared. Many were serving on ships in the North Sea, where the stormy winter weather could make for a lively Christmas celebration.
Christmas refugee shelters
War-torn Europe meant the mass displacement of civilian populations: around 250,000 Belgian refugees sheltered in Britain during the war. With Belgians receiving sympathetic treatment in the press, British support for their plight was considerable in the first years of the war. Thousands of charitable enterprises were launched to help them, from large committees and organisations to newspaper subscriptions.
In 1914 The Bystander launched an appeal for Christmas presents from their readers: “Over one thousand toys have been personally distributed among the Belgian refugee children now being looked after in English homes and hostels.”
Travelling home on leave
Christmas leave for soldiers was an uncommon stroke of luck – in some cases it was determined by drawing lots. Soldiers were relatively well looked after on the journey home from the front, thanks to the activity of a number of wartime charities. Women volunteered to serve tea at railway stations to anyone in uniform, and special army club rooms and YMCA huts gave soldiers shelter en route. They threw cheerful Christmas celebrations for soldiers who could not make it home in time.
Contemporary illustration showing British troops drawing lots in France in 1916 to determine who gets leave at Christmas. (© Archive Images/Alamy)
A bittersweet Christmas at home
Christmas on the home front may have been more comfortable, but civilians were still feeling the impact of the war. In December 1914 Britain experienced its first attacks on home territory: three east coast towns were bombarded from the sea on 16 December, and the first German aircraft raid hit the south coast five days later.
Apart from the shock of such direct attacks, absent loved ones made for a difficult Christmas during the war. Having them home on leave was a special wartime gift. The Christmas of 1915 was one of particularly happy surprises: delays in the post meant that some families did not get warning of their loved one’s arrival until they appeared at the door.
In the papers
Newspapers were the main source of public information about the progression of war and the welfare of those fighting. At Christmas, as in prewar years, weekly papers like The Illustrated London News and The Tatler produced their annual Christmas issues. With beautiful images and short stories, these were careful to present a cheerful image of the wartime festivities. Sentimental images of soldiers returning home, or robins in the trenches aimed to integrate the experience of war with the spirit of Christmas.
In the theatres
Pantomimes were a major Christmas tradition before the war, and continued throughout the conflict. During the war, they adapted to popular interests, incorporating favourite war sing-alongs such as ‘It’s a Long Way to Tipperary’ and ‘Keep the Home Fires Burning’.
With their expensive scenery and raucous antics, much about them seemed at odds with the war effort, while soldiers risked their lives at the front. But they were also utterly British, and a cultural emblem of Christmas cheer and communal good will. This wasn’t merely escapism, but a concerted effort to lift spirits. As one theatre review said in 1914: “Before you have been long at the Drury Lane pantomime you feel with even more certainty that when you entered the building that we are going to win this war.”
Hannah Scally is senior historian at illustratedfirstworldwar.com.
This article was first published online in 2014