During the six long years of World War Two, Christmas was a much-needed chance to celebrate and forget the horrors of the conflict – but it was also a sad time for millions of people, with so many families separated by death, evacuation and military service, so many homes destroyed by bombing, and so many shortages everywhere.
War broke out in September 1939, and that Christmas was a relatively normal one. There was no rationing – yet – but the British people knew that shortages were officially due to begin the following January and many were determined to enjoy themselves while they still could.
However, the war still loomed over the festive season: the best-selling toys that Christmas had a military theme, while adults gave each other fancy decorated gas mask cases and steel helmets alongside the usual seasonal gifts. The Christmas edition of Women’s Weekly magazine got in on the act too, suggesting that the inside of blackout blinds could be decorated for the festive season.
By Christmas 1940, the shortages were already biting and the bombs were dropping – which made small artificial trees very popular, as they could be taken down into air raid shelters to give these gloomy places a touch of festive cheer during some of the heaviest bombing of the Blitz. Good Housekeeping magazine even suggested a recipe for a Christmas cake in the shape of an Anderson shelter! The most popular gift that year appears to have been soap, which ended up being a real luxury in Europe at various points during the war.
The following year saw a festive season of good news and bad. America had finally entered the war after the attack on the Pearl Harbor naval base in early December 1941, which meant Britain was no longer standing alone in the fight against fascism. But the British crown colony of Hong Kong surrendered to the Japanese on Christmas Day; a bloody event that became known as ‘Black Christmas’.
However, in classic British fashion, it was determined that the show must go on. In the Ministry of Information propaganda film Christmas Under Fire, it was emphatically stated:
The nation has made a resolve that war or no war, the children of England will not be cheated out of the one day they look forward to all year. So, as far as possible, this will be an old-fashioned Christmas, at least for the children.
Christmas 1942 saw shortages of most seasonal goodies, including alcohol, which was difficult to get unless you were friends with the landlord at your local or Knew Someone on the black market. By this point in the war sweets had also been rationed (12 ounces a month), much to the disgust of children everywhere.
People got creative and made their own decorations from anything they could find, or used holly, ivy and other greenery to deck their halls. The Ministry of Food suggested a novel and oddly prosaic idea to make such greenery even more Christmassy:
Dip your greenery in a strong solution of Epsom salts. When dry it will be beautifully frosted
Endless turkey sandwiches on Boxing Day were completely off the cards by Christmas 1943 – it was almost impossible to get hold of any type of festive bird – and you’d be very lucky to get a Christmas pudding at all. The News Of The World reported on that year’s shortages:
To make up for the shortage of shell eggs, there will be a double ration of dried eggs. Between now and Christmas there will be an acute shortage of fruit. There are practically no apples on the market, and it is doubtful if many children will get oranges. The sale of nuts is practically non-existent.¹
Despite this, people still celebrated Christmas as best they could. Newspapers and magazines printed ideas for home-made presents, and all round the country people were busily knitting and sewing and recycling household objects into unusual toys and gifts.
The last Christmas of the war was a particularly tough one on the home front, despite the end being in sight. Rationing was really biting and, more seriously for a traumatised and exhausted nation, by December 1944 many British cities were genuinely on the verge of running dry of alcohol! In fact, things had got so bad that arrests for drunk and disorderly, usually on the increase during the festive season, actually plummeted that year – to the relief of police officers all over Britain, presumably!
Preparing the Christmas feast during a time of food rationing and booze shortages was a challenge, even for the most accomplished of cooks. The Ministry of Food, who controlled food supplies, issued a steady stream of recipes and food advice to the home front, some of which were more successful than others (to modern tastes, quite a few of their suggestions sound truly revolting!).
Here’s a recipe from 1944 for a thrifty, last-minute Christmas pudding, which has a few unexpected ingredients! It comes from Marguerite Patten’s fascinating collection of wartime recipes on the ration, Victory Cookbook: Nostalgic Food and Facts From 1940-1954.
You will need:
75 grams/3 ounces of bread, crusts removed
150 ml/¼ pint of cold water
75 grams/6 ounces of plain flour
1½ teaspoons of baking powder
½ teaspoon of mixed spice
½ teaspoon of ground cinnamon
75 grams/3 ounces of rolled oats
75 grams/3 ounces of finely grated carrots
75 grams/3 ounces of melted margarine
75 grams/3 ounces of sugar (preferably brown sugar)
225 grams/8 ounces of mixed dried fruit
2 fresh or reconstituted dried eggs
1) Break the bread up into small pieces and place it in the water. Leave for at least 20 minutes, then beat the bread and water mixture with a fork until it becomes smooth.
2) Sift the flour, baking powder and spices into the bread mixture, add the rest of the ingredients and mix well (you could get everyone to stir in the traditional wish at this point!).
3) Grease a 1½ litre/2½ pint pudding basin and spoon in the mixture. Cover the basin with margarine paper and a cloth (or greaseproof paper).
4) Steam the pudding over boiling water for 2½ hours. Remove the pudding from the steamer and remove the damp covers until they have dried, then place them back on the basin. Store somewhere cool for a maximum of three days.
5) To serve, steam for an hour, then add a good dollop of sherry custard!
¹ ‘The Curious World of Christmas’ – Niall Edworthy (Doubleday; London, 2007)