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British Christmas Through The Ages: The 1930s

02 Nov 2021 by Liz Tod

*Updated 21/11/2022*

We’ve left the Roaring Twenties behind in our last article, and we now enter the decade that most of us know as the era of the Great Depression.

This was a very difficult decade but not for everyone, as we’ll learn.

Before we step into their Christmas though let’s have some background on Britain in the 1930s ….


The Great Crash or Wall Street Crash

In October 1929 share prices on the New York Stock Exchange collapsed and caused the largest financial crisis of the twentieth century, affecting nearly every country in the world.


How the Great Crash affected Britain

The value of British exports halved, plunging its industrial areas into poverty with Wales and the north of England faring worst.

The industries particularly affected were coal mining, shipbuilding and iron and textile manufacture, which had become increasingly uncompetitive in the world market.  

From 1931 to 1935 the unemployment total never fell below 2 million and in the winter of 1932-33 it almost topped 3 million.


Many in the affected areas were extremely hungry and queues at soup kitchens were growing. Child malnutrition was rife as were scurvy, rickets, and TB.

Divided families

People who lost their jobs depended on unemployment benefit.

However, to cut costs the government introduced the Means Test in 1931.
Officials visited families to assess their needs and sometimes this seemed an unfair system, dividing people.  For instance, a family might be deemed as ineligible if they had some savings or if an older child in the household worked.

A period of unrest

During this time there were many hunger marches with the unemployed highlighting their plight and the rise of extremist political parties such as the British Union of Fascists and the Communist Party of GB.

...It wasn’t all bad, though!

Despite this being a very challenging decade for British people there were some good things happening:

  • In the Midlands and Southeast new or expanding businesses were providing work and many new houses were being built. Local authorities also provided 1 million houses to help clear the slum and overcrowding situation.
  • Those with jobs in these areas found their standards of living improve.
  • It has been regarded as a Golden Age for science with the atom having been split and many advances in medical treatment.
  • The ‘Holidays with Pay Act’ was introduced in 1938 and seaside resorts flourished.
  • Britains 1st Butlin’s Holiday camp was opened in Skegness in 1936!


So, Christmas in the 1930s?

Despite this backdrop of unemployment, poverty, and uncertainty there was still a desire amongst the people to celebrate Christmas.

Retailers put huge efforts into encouraging people to their shops, offering promotions and bargains and urging people to spend money to help the economy.


Pudding for all!

One small but memorable way the poor were helped at Christmas in the early 30’s was by the baking of the biggest Christmas pudding of all time. The Empire Christmas Pudding (mentioned in the 1920’s post) was made at the charity PDSA’s annual Christmas market.

It was gigantic and was carried by four horses from the Albert Hall to the Army and Navy Store in Victoria St and divided into 11,208 smaller puddings and distributed amongst the poor.

This was obviously a funny sight, and it cheered many people up at such a dark time.


Most popular Christmas food of the 1930s

There were no supermarkets yet and no credit cards and during this period only the wealthy had fridges so, as in the previous decade, all shopping was done as close to Christmas as possible.

  • Turkey was enjoyed though some people still had goose. This was an abstemious time with any waste frowned upon and leftovers made into soups and pies – turkey soup being a favourite.
  • Christmas pudding - usually made weeks in advance.
  • Canned food was becoming very popular, particularly fruit, pickles, chutney, and meat.
  • Brandy Butter made its first appearance.
  • The wealthy enjoyed cocktails at this festive time. A particular favourite was ‘Sidecar’ which consisted of lemon juice, Cointreau, and brandy.


How did they decorate their houses?

  • For those who could afford a tree, electric fairy lights were coming in, a much safer choice of lighting!
  • The first bristle-style artificial tree was made in 1930.
  • Paperchains suspended across the ceiling were common as were chalkware decorations. This was moulded plaster decorated with water-based paint and glossily varnished.
  • Elaborate fold-out paper decorations were loved.
  • Woolworths was the favourite shop for festive decorations where nothing cost more than sixpence.


Christmas entertainment in the 1930s

No TV! Though it had been invented it wasn’t until 1936 that it became available to a few people (in the Southeast) and specifically for the King’s coronation.

Games enjoyed were:

  • Charades.
  • Consequences.
  • Hunt The Thimble.
  • Board games such as Scrabble, Monopoly and Mah-Jongg were starting.


Popular 1930s kids’ toys

It was during this period that for the first time children were targeted with toys linked to films and celebrities from radio and cinema.

The must-have toys for this period were:

  • Shirley Temple dolls.
  • Mickey Mouse toy (produced in 1930).
  • Trains.
  • Meccano sets.
  • Soft toys.
  • Aeroplanes on wheels.
  • Rocking horses.
  • Developmental toys – just starting – for example ‘Minibrix’ launched by the Premo Rubber Company consisted of rubber and moulded press stud blocks.


Finally, did you know?

  • Us Brits, in this decade, were one of the biggest per capita consumers of sugar in the world!
  • The Mars Bar, Whole Nut chocolate, Aero, Kit Kat, Maltesers and Penguins were all introduced in the 1930’s.
  • In 1932 Nescafe introduced instant coffee.
  • The first Royal Christmas Message was read by George V in 1932. It was listened to by 20 million people across the UK, Australia, Canada, Kenya, India and South Africa.
  • At the end of our decade, on September 1, 1939, Hitler invaded Poland from the west. Two days later France and Britain declared war on Germany. World War 2 had begun.


Stay tuned for our next blog covers what it was like for people at Christmas in war torn Britain.