In many ways, Christmas 1940 was the first war-time Christmas of World War Two. Celebrating during heavy rationing and restrictions – whilst surviving heavy bombing and coping with the threat of invasion – was a battle in itself.
Photo: A child sleeps in an air-raid shelter festooned with Christmas decorations – a not uncommon sight in December 1940. (Getty Images)
Alan Bennett describes the devastating bombing raid on London on 29 December 1940.
Alan Bennett describes the devastating bombing raid on London on 29 December 1940 with eyewitness testimony from Joanna Roberts.
American journalist Ed Murrow reports on Christmas in 1940.
The American journalist Ed Murrow reports on the stoicism of the British people during Christmas 1940.
An American news report of Christmas in Britain in 1940 read by the American journalist Quentin Reynolds.
Alan Bennett introduces an American news report of Christmas in Britain in 1940 read by the American journalist Quentin Reynolds.
Christmas Eve 1939 was an unhappy occasion for evacuee Hilda Hollingsworth. Alan Bennett narrates.
Christmas Eve 1939 was an unhappy occassion for evacuee Hilda Hollingsworth. Staying in the country, Hilda was expecting her mother to join them for Christmas and she remembers the deep sadness she felt when circumstances conspired against them. Alan Bennett narrates.
Edward Gill, an evacuee from Manchester, fondly remembers Christmas 1939. Alan Bennett narrates.
Edward Gill, an evacuee from Manchester, fondly remembers Christmas 1939 and how it was the first proper Christmas he and his brothers experienced. Alan Bennett narrates.
Christmas under fire
By the end of 1940, 24,000 civilians had been killed in the Blitz and hundreds of thousands made homeless. In November, German bombers had obliterated Coventry city centre and there had been particularly fierce raids on Manchester and Liverpool in the days leading up to Christmas. The public were now mourning the loss of their loved ones on the home front and in combat, as well as praying for the 41,000 British soldiers captured on the continent.
In order to avoid the bombs, many families spent some of the festive period in air-raid shelters and other places of refuge and decked out their temporary homes with makeshift decorations. Very short Christmas trees were in demand because of the height of the shelters.
'On the ration'
Assuming that gas or electricity was available, Christmas dinner would have still been a triumph of ingenuity. Turkey was unaffordable and most made do with other cuts of meat, which were still expensive. For example, a family of four's weekly meat ration probably wouldn't even cover the cost of a small chicken. One alternative was home-reared chickens or rabbits, much to the shock of young children who often regarded them as pets. Home-grown vegetables and chutneys would have also made the table.
Rations were scrimped and saved including ham, bacon, butter, suet and margarine. The tea and sugar rations were increased in the week before Christmas. Very little fruit was imported and nuts were very costly. Consequently, cooks had to improvise Christmas cakes and puddings devoid of dried fruit and marzipan, using instead sponge or other unlikely ingredients. Alcohol was available but, again, prohibitively expensive. There would have been no after-dinner French cheeses or brandy due to the German occupation.
Presents and gifts
The public were discouraged from giving presents and encouraged to give as much as they could to the war effort. Almost £10 million in war bonds was sold in the week before Christmas. Consumer goods were becoming scarcer as the war wore on but a theme of air-raid-shelter-friendly presents emerged. Flasks and sleeping bags were in demand and even 'gas masks' for dolls.
Home-made presents were popular too, as were second-hand ones. For working-class people 'make do and mend' was the norm. Dads carved sailing ships and dolls' houses, whilst mums knitted with spare bits of wool and made sweets. Children's gifts were also donated from other countries and charities.
Men and women on duty
Postmen attempted to deliver millions of letters and parcels to streets that had been razed by the bombing, whilst many more civilian men and women were on duty in their roles as ARP wardens, Home Guardsmen, Observers, fire fighters, ambulance drivers and other crucial occupations. Travel was discouraged; not just because of fuel rationing, but to keep the roads and railways free for transporting war goods and returning troops.
No Christmas bells
Entertainment over the festive period included Charlie Chaplin satirising Hitler in "The Great Dictator" and BBC Radio broadcasts of "Kitchen Front", the King’s Speech and variety shows. The BBC also broadcast a Christmas sermon from the ruins of Coventry Cathedral. Elsewhere, church services happened as normal (bomb-damage permitting) but bells were not allowed to be rung, as this signified an invasion, and the windows were not allowed to be lit.
The City burns
Mercifully, there was an unofficial postponement of the bombing by both sides from Christmas Eve until the 27th. Sunday 29 December marked one of the fiercest bombing raids of the whole Blitz - so fierce it caused what became known as the Second Great Fire of London. As the City rapidly became a raging inferno, the dome of St Paul's Cathedral was photographed towering unscathed above the carnage. This became one of the most powerful images of the whole war, and one which inspired the British public on the eve of another year of conflict.