What was Christmas like in Britain during the Second World War?

As the bombs rained down on Britain, the season of goodwill still went on, albeit very differently

Schoolchildren in Liverpool have their Christmas party in an air raid shelter built into a railway arch

As the fighting raged across Europe, families on the home front still tried to bring a sense of normality to the festive season, although some traditions had to be adapted to account for the threat of bombing raids, goods shortages, and the reality of spending the holidays apart from loved ones.

The Christmas of 1939 wasn’t much different to previous years in terms of celebrations, although for most people, the absence of family members marked the traditional get-together. But the Christmas of 1940 was a different story.

After 57 consecutive nights of the bombing raids of the Blitz between September and November 1940, there was a small respite on Christmas and Boxing Day but, by 29 December, many families were rushing for the safety of air raid shelters once more.

Rationing meant Christmas dinners looked, and tasted, very different, while the blackout put an end to festive lights on the streets. And as fuel rationing and travel restrictions began to bite, family celebrations were local affairs.

What did people eat for Christmas in WW2?

The familiar fare that would normally grace the dining table at Christmas was hard to come by. Some families saved up their rationing coupons so they could afford some extras, but, once rationing was in place, turkey was off the menu.

‘Mock’ food became popular, with foods such as vegetables and sausagemeat replacing turkey and other festive treats; in the week before Christmas in 1940, the tea ration was doubled and the sugar allowance increased to 12 ounces.

Homemade or renovated gifts were a necessity for most – toys, if they could be found, were expensive and many families were facing financial hardship. In 1941, the use of paper for anything other than to wrap food and for deliveries was prohibited, so old newspaper was used as substitute wrapping paper.

How did people celebrate Christmas in WW2?

Greetings cards were printed on small, flimsy pieces of paper, and were often reused in the following years. But cards were an important way of keeping in touch with those away fighting, or with evacuated children.

There was also the YMCA gift scheme, which allowed those serving overseas to choose gifts to send back to their families. American GIs stationed in Britain had the opportunity to spend the holiday season with a British family – in return they would often bring lavish gifts.

For those who had lost their homes and belongings in bombing raids, Christmas was a particularly difficult time. Communities would help each other and canteens provided shelter and food for people in need.

After food and gifts, families gathered around the wireless for the Christmas speech, to hear words of comfort and cheer from their monarch, George VI.

Emma Slattery Williams is BBC History Revealed‘s staff writer

This content first appeared in the Christmas 2020 issue of BBC History Revealed

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