World War 2 (WW2) changed every aspect of life for the people of Britain – including Christmas. In spite of hardships from rationing to the Blitz, our ancestors struggled to keep the Christmas spirit alive.

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Rationing meant that the traditional Christmas dinner was off the menu. By Christmas 1942 almost all foods apart from bread and fresh fruit and vegetables were rationed, which meant using substitute ingredients to bake staples such as plum pudding and Christmas cake. “It will take more than Hitler to stop the British housewife from setting a festive table at Christmas time,” a Ministry of Food advertisement announced in December 1942. “By dressing up the old favourites, by using little tricks of flavouring, garnishing and serving we can still put up a festive show.” This meant stale breadcrumbs and grated carrot and potato to bulk up cakes, as well as dried eggs and cold tea to darken a plum pudding. Delicious!

Turkey was off the menu due to its cost, so lamb, pork, rabbit or a home-raised chicken made popular alternatives. If meat wasn’t an option, ‘mock goose’ was recommended: sliced layers of potato, apple and grated cheese.

Many residents of Britain’s major cities spent Christmas 1940 in air raid shelters because of the Blitz. Shelters held special Christmas parties, particularly in the London Underground tunnels at King’s Cross St Pancras, with community singing and entertainment.

Evacuees were treated to Christmas parties funded by charities and voluntary donations – with a special guest, of course. “Father Christmas will travel from London to Petworth, Billingshurst, Pulborough and many other parts of Sussex, laden with presents for London children,” the West Sussex County Times reported in December 1939. However, even Father Christmas had to adjust his plans to suit the war: the journey wasn’t scheduled to take place until 7 January.

For many families in WW2, the best Christmas present was a letter or card from a loved one fighting abroad or away on war work. Sadly, paper shortages meant that Christmas cards became increasingly scarce, and those that were produced were often smaller and printed on lightweight paper. Traditional themes were given a wartime twist too. A Christmas card designed for the 4th Survey Regiment in 1944 depicts Santa pulling some surveying equipment from his sack of presents under the caption “A ‘Jerry’ Christmas”.

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Finding postal workers to sort and deliver the cards, letters and parcels was another problem, as many permanent staff members were in the armed services. Also the transportation of troops and munitions was the priority on the railways, so there was less space to carry mail, and civilians were urged not to visit relatives if it would require taking the train.

Paper shortages meant that there was no wrapping paper, and in 1941 the Government ordered that “no retailer shall provide any paper for the packing and wrapping of goods excepting food stuffs or articles which the shopkeeper has agreed to deliver”. Customers often wrapped their presents in newspaper instead.

Indeed, for those living in towns and cities in 1940, Christmas shopping took on an entirely new character. Not only did the blackout restrictions make it difficult to see the goods, but the threat of a Luftwaffe bombing raid kept shoppers on their toes. Toys, if they could be found, were often poor quality due to material shortages, or extremely expensive.

For most, ‘make do and mend’ was the order of the day. Homemade or renovated gifts were popular. The Newcastle Chronicle gave tips in 1941 to transform a plain glass bowl into an “expensive looking gift of real beauty” using an assortment of tinfoil sweet wrappers, while the Birmingham Daily Post in December 1940 suggested “a bed for a small doll can be made out of an oblong cigarette box”, and “a set of tiny dolls’ clothes [can be] made from bits of material”. Other gift ideas included knitted scarves and slippers, embroidered bookmarks, and brooches made from wool, felt or old cutlery.

Christmas decorations also provided an opportunity for resourcefulness. Garlands could be made from old paper, while holly, ivy and mistletoe could be decorated to look ‘frosty’ with a solution of Epsom salts. In 1942 the journal Britannia and Eve suggested dropping “dried peas coloured red in melted sealing wax” onto ivy, and adding a red ribbon. In the same issue, readers also found instructions for a topical table display – “a very realistic barrage balloon” made from old material stuffed with cotton wool and tinsel for guy ropes.

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Through the most difficult years of the mid-20th century, Christmas endured – bringing our ancestors some semblance of normality in what were anything but normal times, and serving a much-needed reminder that hope and peace always triumph.

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