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British Christmas Through The Ages: 'Blitzmas' in the 1940s

09 Nov 2021 by Liz Tod

*Updated 21/11/2022*

In the last blog we looked at Christmas in the 30’s, a decade with its own problems.

Now we’ll read about how the festive season, much loved by so many Britons, was affected during the World War 2.

Britain experienced SIX wartime Christmases.  These were gruelling times.

Men were fighting abroad and some were prisoners of war; women were either in the services carrying out war work or running their struggling households, and thousands of children were evacuees.

By the end of the war thousands of families had lost loved ones (384,000 soldiers and 70,000 civilians killed).

Christmas celebrations during the war had to be scaled down and adjusted as restrictions and shortages took their toll. Nevertheless, Britons were determined to make the festive season as enjoyable as possible.

Let’s look at each wartime year because, as the war developed, people were faced with new challenges.

Christmas 1939 or ‘The Dark Christmas’

At 11.15am on Sunday 3rd September 1939, Prime Minister Neville Chamberlain declared in a 5 minute broadcast declaring Britain at war with Germany.

On 1st September the first official evacuation of children took place – though many returned for Christmas as the threat appeared low at that time.

The weather was particularly severe this winter and the blackout rules had started as soon as war was declared, with the government anticipating night-time attacks on towns and cities.  At first, people used their own materials and then blackout curtains became available.

There were strict rules and wardens (ARP’s) were appointed to ensure people stuck to them. Hence ‘The Dark Christmas’.

It was the last ration-free Christmas as rationing didn’t start until January 1940. And despite people being warned to ‘make do’ with things and not go mad buying extra - they took little notice.

The Landmark Speech 1939

The BBC broadcast a special Christmas Day radio programme which featured the first Christmas speech from King George V1 (there had been no Christmas speech since 1935, after the death of George V).

This proved extremely popular, reaching 20 million listeners and uniting King and country in a common cause.

Christmas 1940 or ‘Blitzmas’

By December 1940 the UK was in the middle of the Blitz, a series of devastating air raids by German forces that had begun on September 7th. Tens of thousands of lives were lost.

Many people spent that Christmas underground. In London over 1 million people were regularly spending nights in shelters, singing and dancing throughout the festive period!  This would’ve helped make up for the lack of community street carol singing, banned on account of the blackouts.

During the year of 1940

  • In the January 2 million men between 19 and 27 were called up.
  • Rationing was introduced in January 1940 and at first, it was just bacon, butter and sugar.
  • Between 13th – 18th June 100,000 children were evacuated.
  • Food supplies dwindled as boats importing were attacked.
  • Corrugated shelters known as Anderson shelters were provided for families who had gardens.
  • For those without gardens, Morrison shelters were provided. These were metal frames to erect around your bed or under the table, for protection
  • There were problems with the postal service due to staff shortages and less space being available on the trains to carry mail (taken up by troops and munition) ….
  • Seeing as sending and receiving greeting cards and presents was very important, the Ministry of Information produced several short films reminding people not to leave posting until the last minute.

Christmas 1941 or the ‘Homemade Christmas’

  • Food was shorter in supply.
  • Clothes were now rationed.
  • People were advised on how to make their clothes last longer
  • There were more people away from home than ever.
  • The Ministry of Supply said that ‘no retailer shall provide any paper for the packing or wrapping of goods excepting foodstuffs or articles which the shopkeeper has agreed to deliver’. So, presents couldn’t be kept as surprises.

Gifts during this period

People didn’t have any spare cash for generous or exciting presents. Instead, they would be home-made, often from recycled materials or had a war theme such as gas mask cases or tin helmets.

Playing cards, dart boards and cigarettes were popular too.

Only one or two presents per person if you were lucky and children's stockings would contain just an orange and some nuts.

Christmas Entertainment

  • Radio was very important to people. It was their way of getting news but they also enjoyed the light relief of comedy programmes.
  • Piano entertainment was much enjoyed, especially in pubs. People loved Bing Crosby and his song ‘White Christmas’ and the songs of Vera Lynn.
  • Cinema was loved – particularly comedy war films and a film called ‘In Which We Serve’ (1942) was produced to raise morale.
  • Football games over the festive period were popular.
  • Dance halls during the war provided much needed joyful entertainment.
  • Card games.
  • Board games.

Christmas Decorations

There were very few available to buy in the shops so people made their own.

Paperchains from scraps of old paper or newspapers were a favourite. Old lightbulbs were painted and hung around the house or placed on homemade trees.

Fir cones were either painted or dipped in Epsom salts to look like snow.  People really used their imaginations!

The chicken wire tree!

Due to shipping problems trees were in short supply so some people made them from chicken wire and decorated them with twigs and paper chains or whatever.

People were very resourceful, and determined to have some much-needed fun!

Christmas 1942 or ‘Austerity Christmas’

More people were called up and female labour was much needed.

There was more rationing, such as:

  • Clothing
  • Coal
  • Soap
  • Sweets
  • Fresh eggs (only 1 every 2 weeks per person).
  • Meat
  • Milk
  • Cheese
  • Cooking fat
  • Petrol

Grow your own!

People were encouraged to produce their own food if they could.  Allotments for growing vegetables were used, or any free space however tiny. During this time the number of allotments doubled to 1.4 million!

Some families kept chickens and some even kept pigs, joining a pig club where you’d club together with others and rear pigs, often on a small holding. Half of the pigs then had to be sold to the government to help with the rationing.


Nutritional needs

People were encouraged to forage for whatever was ‘abundant, edible and free’.  

Scurvy, a lack of vitamin C, was unfortunately common during this time. People were encouraged to pick berries, especially the rosehip, rich in this vitamin. Advice was given on how to prepare and cook it, producing syrup, jam, and puree.

For protein, pigeon, rabbit, hare, and rook were recommended.

Also, the infamous powdered egg was introduced, not to everyone's taste but considered a good substitute for the real thing.

No turkey!

Over the years turkey became more and more of a luxury for Christmas dinner. As rationing became more severe, people invented a new Christmas dish called ‘Woolton Pie’ named after Lord Woolton, Minister of Food in 1940.

It was a vegetable pie made with pastry and it became a wartime staple.

Christmas in 1943

Things were even more difficult. Everything was in short supply.

Because of the shortage of fuel, few deliveries could be made which impacted many things.

Of course, people could save some of their ration tokens and use them at Christmas but this took some doing. The Black Market in the exchange of foodstuffs and goods took off during this time despite there being hefty fines.

Food available during Christmas 1943

  • Horsemeat – plenty of it.
  • Tinned fish – but wasn’t very popular!
  • Spam - became very popular and made into fritters.
  • People started trying their own wine and beer making.

The G.I.s arrive!

The American G.I.'s had arrived, and many were hosted by British families at Christmas. With them, they brought gifts of food that brightened many a family’s day.

Christmas in 1944

Freezing fog hung around many parts of Britain.

Weapons used by the Germans, the V1 and V2 had killed over 5500 British civilians during the year and 30 doodlebugs hit towns from Derby to Co Durham on Christmas Eve.

Deep shelters were being used in London by hundreds.

This however was the last wartime Christmas and there were glimmers of hope. Things in Europe were going well. Some rations were eased such as margarine, sugar, and sweets.

For the first time in years, churches’ stained-glass windows could be lit as the threat from conventional aircraft was deemed low.

So, we leave poor challenged (but very resourceful) wartime Britain and enter the early postwar period…. hopefully things will look a little brighter!