Christmas during wartime

So, Christmas is nearly here which means that food, wine and indulgence are probably on your mind…and lips. The festive period at wartime was very different to the one most of us are used to today and much more about making do. Rationing meant that food was scarce or very expensive and even if turkey and all the trimmings were on people’s brains, it wouldn't have been on their plates… Rationing had been introduced in 1917, after the German U-boat campaign sank vital military and food supply ships coming into Britain. Luxuries synonymous with the festive period were very hard to come by, and by the end of WWI it was reported that the UK only had about six weeks' of food left. The depleted supplies meant that sugar and butter had to stay on ration until 1920.

Christmas hamper arrived in Dug-Out in France & recipients unpack a turkey sardines cakes & other edibles from home
Christmas hamper arrived in Dug-Out in France & recipients unpack a turkey sardines cakes & other edibles from home

In 1939, at the start of World War II, Britain was importing more than 50 per cent of its meat, 70 per cent of its cheese and sugar, nearly 80 per cent of its fruits and about 70 per cent of cereals and fats. Again, it didn’t take long for the Germans to realise that they could seriously hamper Britain’s supply route — aiming to gradually push the country into submission. The government, as they did during part of the First World War, responded with rationing. This made me think about how much food we import today — according to sources the UK produces less than two thirds of the food the country consumes. I wonder how long we would could cope on rations today? Knowing that has made me a bit more conscious of where my food is coming from and trying to eat more locally sourced British goods will be my New Year's resolution for 2018, I think! “It’ll all be over by Christmas…” Rather ironically, “it'll all be over by Christmas,” was a familiar phrase heard in Britain, during the start of World War I and II. Unknown to them at the time, the people of Britain went on to endure five wartime Christmases throughout the Second World War. By the start of 1940 bacon, butter and sugar were rationed and then so was the rest of the good stuff including: meat, tea, jam, biscuits, breakfast cereals, cheese, eggs, lard, milk and canned and dried fruit. During 1940, weekly rations were four ounces of bacon and/or ham, six ounces of butter and/or margarine, two ounces of tea, eight ounces of sugar, two ounces of cooking fats and meat to the value of 1/10d (9p), although in the week before Christmas, the tea ration was doubled and the sugar ration increased to twelve ounces. Before Christmas, many would save up their rations including: ham, bacon, butter, suet and margarine. Cakes were very plain without marzipan or dried fruit and alcohol was also too expensive. French cheeses and brandy were also out due to the German occupation. People had to learn how to be inventive with whatever was available and turkey would not have been on the average family's table at Christmas because it was simply too expensive. Instead, other cuts of meats, still fairly expensive, would have been used. Many people ate home-reared chickens or rabbits, and home-grown vegetables and chutneys. Non-rationed food was available but it was unaffordable to the majority of families. By August 1942 almost all foods, apart from vegetables, fresh fruit and bread were rationed — imported fruit was extremely expensive.

Visions of a very different Christmas, The War Illustrated, Vol II, the Winter Campaign
Visions of a very different Christmas, The War Illustrated, Vol II, the Winter Campaign

But, what about the presents? During war, the public were discouraged from giving presents. Gifts were often home made, renovated, or second-hand as people, again, were forced to be inventive and creative with whatever they had. Mothers got used to knitting toys out of wool. Practical gifts were also popular including: books, seeds, gardening tools, and soap. However, once the problem of finding or making a gift was solved - what to wrap it in became another. Wrapping paper was scarce and keeping gifts a surprise was difficult. As war raged on, air-raid-shelter-friendly presents became common and included: flasks and sleeping bags and even gas masks for dolls. Many families spent some of the festive period in places of refuge and air-raid shelters, decorating them with home-made decorations and short Christmas trees that would fit in the shelters. A wartime Christmas highlighted absence Christmas during wartime though, really highlighted the absence not of toys, gifts, and rich food, but of family that had been sent to fight, killed, wounded, evacuated or captured. For many, the traditional family get-together was what people really missed — not presents, but the presence of loved ones was what people really hankered for over the festive period. Family and friends is really what Christmas is all about and we should all take time to remember what our ancestors went through, standing up for our country and our freedom... Merry Christmas and Happy New Year from Forces War Records.


Delve into the interesting world of military genealogy and search the Forces War Records site and let us help you start, or continue your genealogy quest. There could be a war hero in your family just waiting to be discovered and remembered

 Sources: BBC History & Wiki

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