Celebrating Christmas in World War 2 – Keep Calm and Carry On

The war years made celebrating the tradition of Christmas very difficult. But people found ways to make the most of it. There was a spirit of camaraderie and a willingness to “mend and make do”.

Being apart from loved ones at Christmas was a strain on families. Husbands and fathers were away at war; wives and mothers were either serving in the military or working in munitions factories for the war effort; children were often evacuated to the countryside, far from home.

But people put their best foot forward. They kept calm and carried on.

Listen to Bing Crosby sing “I’ll be Home for Christmas” as you read along—a song that was originally written to honor soldiers overseas who longed to be home at Christmastime.

The National Savings Committee in wartime Britain issued posters to encourage saving, discourage frivolous spending and promote investment in the war effort.

World War 2 poster issued by the National Savings Committee, London.
World War 2 poster issued by the National Savings Committee, London.

Similar posters were issued in the United States.

World War II Posters, US Office of War Information
World War II Posters, US Office of War Information

Fewer men at home meant fewer men available to dress up and play Santa Claus. Mothers dressed up as Santa for Christmas parties, and women served as substitute Santas at department stores.

Father Christmas presents Winston Churchill Jr., the Prime Minister's grandson, with a gift at a Christmas party at Admiralty House in London, 17 December 1942
Father Christmas presents Winston Churchill Jr., the Prime Minister’s grandson, with a gift at a Christmas party at Admiralty House in London, 17 December 1942
Father Christmas lifts a young girl up to look at a toy soldier on a highly-decorated Christmas tree at a home for evacuees in Henley-on-Thames. It is interesting to note that this Father Christmas is actually being played by a woman
Father Christmas lifts a young girl up to look at a toy soldier on a highly-decorated Christmas tree at a home for evacuees in Henley-on-Thames. It is interesting to note that this Father Christmas is actually being played by a woman
Father Christmas hands out toys and games, including a set of building bricks, to children at a home for evacuees in Henley-on-Thames, 1941
Father Christmas hands out toys and games, including a set of building bricks, to children at a home for evacuees in Henley-on-Thames, 1941

Christmas trees were in short supply in Britain and America because the men who would normally cut them down were away at war. Rail and road transportation was largely used for the war effort, leaving little room for luxuries like Christmas trees.

Britain had a program through the YMCA called “Gifts to Home League” whereby those serving abroad could purchase gifts and have them delivered. The following three images show how the YMCA’s program brought Christmas cheer to the Devereaux family in Middlesex, England in 1944.

Outside the main entrance to Selfridge's department store on Oxford Street, representatives of the YMCA load the Christmas tree they have just purchased into their van
Outside the main entrance to Selfridge’s department store on Oxford Street, representatives of the YMCA load the Christmas tree they have just purchased into their van
Trooper Devereux, whose photograph can be seen on the Christmas tree, is serving in Italy and bought the tree as a present for 12 year old Jean under a YMCA scheme
Trooper Devereux, whose photograph can be seen on the Christmas tree, is serving in Italy and bought the tree as a present for 12 year old Jean under a YMCA scheme
Jean Devereux cuts the cake in her house in Pinner, Middlesex, on Christmas Day 1944
Jean Devereux cuts the cake in her house in Pinner, Middlesex, on Christmas Day 1944
Children visiting Santa Claus, Eaton's department store, St. Catherine Street, Montreal, Canada, 1941
Children visiting Santa Claus, Eaton’s department store, St. Catherine Street, Montreal, Canada, 1941
Christmas Eve in Stockholm, Sweden, 1941
Christmas Eve in Stockholm, Sweden, 1941
A Christmas party held at Admiralty House, London, 17 December 1942
A Christmas party held at Admiralty House, London, 17 December 1942
Leading Aircraftman Fred Fazan dressed as Santa Claus hands out presents to Dutch children at No. 122 Wing's airfield at Volkel, Holland, 13 December 1944
Leading Aircraftman Fred Fazan dressed as Santa Claus hands out presents to Dutch children at No. 122 Wing’s airfield at Volkel, Holland, 13 December 1944

During respites from fighting, there were a few chances to sample the local beverage. Here, British troops celebrate Christmas cheer with the help of Italy’s fine wine offerings.

The British Army in Italy 1943. The Queen's Regiment celebrate Christmas, 25 December 1943
The British Army in Italy 1943. The Queen’s Regiment celebrate Christmas, 25 December 1943
Royal Artillery cooks preparing Christmas dinner near Geilenkirchen, Germany, 25 December 1944
Royal Artillery cooks preparing Christmas dinner near Geilenkirchen, Germany, 25 December 1944

Singing songs and carols were rituals of Christmas at war—a way to keep memories of Christmases at home alive.

The ground crew of No. 122 Wing singing Christmas carols by a Hawker Tempest in a dispersal at Volkel airfield (B80), Holland 1944
The ground crew of No. 122 Wing singing Christmas carols by a Hawker Tempest in a dispersal at Volkel airfield (B80), Holland 1944
In the ward room that has been decorated with balloons and streamers, the First Lieutenant carves the joint during Christmas celebrations on board HMS WESTMINSTER at Rosyth
In the ward room that has been decorated with balloons and streamers, the First Lieutenant carves the joint during Christmas celebrations on board HMS WESTMINSTER at Rosyth
Christmas dinner in the wardroom of HMS MALAYA at Scapa Flow, 25 December 1942
Christmas dinner in the wardroom of HMS MALAYA at Scapa Flow, 25 December 1942
A nurse feeds a patient with a spoonful of Christmas pudding at a naval hospital at Kingseat in Scotland, December 1941
A nurse feeds a patient with a spoonful of Christmas pudding at a naval hospital at Kingseat in Scotland, December 1941
A youngster, clutching his soldier father, gazes upward while the latter lifts his wife from the ground to wish her a Merry Christmas
A youngster, clutching his soldier father, gazes upward while the latter lifts his wife from the ground to wish her a Merry Christmas

Home-made presents were popular. Dads made ships and dolls’ houses, whilst moms made sweets (candies) and knitted with spare bits of wool. Children’s gifts were often donated from other countries and charities.

Petty Officer H Bell, of Shotts, Lanarkshire, a member of the Home Fleet, constructs model ships and aircraft to be given as presents for Christmas
Petty Officer H Bell, of Shotts, Lanarkshire, a member of the Home Fleet, constructs model ships and aircraft to be given as presents for Christmas
On the foc'sle of a battleship, in the shadow of the guns, a Royal Marine, J Lynch of Newport, Monmouthshire is putting the finishing touches to a large dolls house, complete with furniture, 1943
On the foc’sle of a battleship, in the shadow of the guns, a Royal Marine, J Lynch of Newport, Monmouthshire is putting the finishing touches to a large dolls house, complete with furniture, 1943
Make-do Dolls For Christmas- Wartime Recycling, 1943 A portrait of a home-made stuffed cloth 'Mrs Brer Rabbit' and baby. According to the original caption, the apron of this children's toy was made from part of an old net curtain
Make-do Dolls For Christmas- Wartime Recycling, 1943 A portrait of a home-made stuffed cloth ‘Mrs Brer Rabbit’ and baby. According to the original caption, the apron of this children’s toy was made from part of an old net curtain
A group of young children at Junior School design and make their own Christmas decorations in Cambridgeshire, England, 1944
A group of young children at Junior School design and make their own Christmas decorations in Cambridgeshire, England, 1944

To help conserve paper, wrapping of Christmas presents was prohibited, making it difficult to keep Christmas presents a surprise. But whatever children received for Christmas during World War II, it was a treat and a sight for their sore little eyes.

Look what Santa brought you
Look what Santa brought you

Suggested Reading

Contains affiliate links

Where Treetops Glisten: Three Stories of Heartwarming Courage and Christmas Romance During World War II

A Christmas to Remember

Pearl Harbor Christmas: A World at War, December 1941

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