The 17th century was a strange time for Christmas. For the first few decades of the century, people celebrated just as they had for hundreds of years, until a political squabble between the king and parliament exploded into a prolonged period of civil war and the rise to power of some distinctly humourless politicians.
The anti-Christmas legislation enacted by the Puritan Long Parliament in the 1640s wasn’t the first time the British government has had a sense of humour failure (and it won’t be the last) – but it was certainly the most spectacular. All the things that made Christmas so enjoyable for ordinary people were banned: mince pies (see below), decorations, gaming, plays, and attending church services. Shops and businesses were expected to stay open on December 25th – it was, in short, to be treated like just another working day:
Resolved by the Parliament: That no observation shall be had of the five and twentieth day of December commonly called Christmas-Day; nor any solemnity used or exercised in churches upon the day in respect thereof – 1652 Ordinance
This was a very foolish move, as midwinter celebrations of one form or another have been central to human culture and belief systems for thousands of years. However, Puritan religious beliefs trumped the near-universal need for people to have fun and celebrate during the darkest, coldest time of the year.
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.