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 Christmas on the Home Front
by Bob Brooke


Celebrating Christmas during World War II was a challenge for most people, except for perhaps the very wealthy. Just about every family had at least one member in the Armed Forces. The constant worries for those loved ones serving in the armed forces, away from home at the time of year when many families would gather together to celebrate, made it difficult for most.

Today, it’s hard to imagine how families coped during World War Two. However, despite all these challenges, many families managed to put together a very successful festive celebration.

Although the blackout meant there were no Christmas lights in the streets, families still enthusiastically decorated their homes for the holiday season. Cut-up strips of old newspaper made very effective paper chains, holly and other garden greenery adored the pictures on the walls, and pre-war decorations and glass baubles decorated make-do Christmas trees. And people could find tips for making these simple decorations even more festive.

During World War II Christmas trees were in short supply because of a lack of manpower to cut the trees down and a shortage of railroad space to ship the trees to market. Americans rushed to buy American-made Visca artificial trees. In 1941, a five-foot Christmas tree could be purchased for 75 cents.

Though artificial Christmas trees had been both imported to and manufactured in the United States for decades at that point, this was when the faux firs really gained traction. Prior to the war, artificial Christmas trees made from goose feathers were the most popular variety. But after the U.S. stopped importing goods from Germany—including the feather trees—they were no longer available. Instead, people opted for artificial Christmas trees made in America using visca, a type of artificial straw, or those from the UK-based Addis Housewares Company, which used their machinery for making toilet brushes to produce faux trees with similarly stiff bristles.

World War II also brought about changes to how Christmas trees were decorated. “The tradition of lighting a tree at this time of year has been around for a very long time, But you couldn’t have done that in parts of the United States during the war—especially on the coasts—because you had to blackout your windows at certain times.

Electric bubble lights were created during the 1940s and remain popular even today. To give their Christmas tree a snow-covered effect, people mixed a box of Lux soap powder with two cups of water and brushed the concoction on the branches of their tree.

Many Americans threw their German blown-glass ornaments and exotic Japanese ornaments in the trash as soon as the war began. And the shortage of aluminum and tin, used to produce ornaments, led many people to make their own ornaments at home. Magazines contained patterns for ornaments made out of non-priority war materials, like paper, string, and natural objects, such as pine cones or nuts.

Since wrapping paper was scarce, people wrapped homemade gifts in brown paper, newspaper, or even small pieces of cloth. Scarves, hats and gloves might be hand knitted using wool unraveled from old sweaters. People purchased war bonds to give as gifts, thus helping the war effort. Homemade jellies and jams made welcome presents. Practical gifts were also popular, especially those associated with gardening, such as homemade wooden garden trowels for planting. The most popular Christmas present in 1940 was soap.

For many people, sharing a special meal with family and friends is an integral part of celebrating the holidays. So, when the U.S. government began rationing various foods in 1942, households across the country had to rethink what they would serve for the occasion.

With rationing, Christmas dinner became an ingenious affair. Cooks hoarded ingredients for weeks and even months in advance. Americans saved up their food ration stamps to provide extra food for a fine holiday meal. The Federal Government increased ration amounts for coffee, tea, and sugar rations at Christmas which helped cooks to create a festive meal. Turkey wasn’t on the menu in the war years. Those lucky enough might have goose, lamb or pork. A home-raised chicken was also a popular alternative for the main meal, accompanied by plenty of homegrown vegetables. As the war progressed, cooks substituted “mock” concoctions to replace Christmas fare became “mock,” for example ‘mock’ goose ( a form of potato casserole) and ‘mock’ cream. And lot of people gave up turkey so that the Government could ship more turkeys to service people overseas.

Sugar was the first food to be rationed during World War II, with butter added to the list the following year. Victory cakes, which used very little sugar (if any) were a popular option, as were gelatin-based desserts.

The war also impacted the types of presents placed under the tree. “Families often exchanged fewer gifts among the adults to make sure the kids got their toys and other fun things,” says Green. But thanks to wartime rationing of commodities like metal, rubber, and rayon, many manufactured children’s toys and gifts were made of wood or paper.

it was common to both give and receive handmade presents during World War II. “Knitting and crocheting really took off, and so did painting and all kinds of crafts. They were often created using repurposed materials and supplies. The U.S. government encouraged Americans to make a patriotic sacrifice for the common good, and purchase war bonds for loved ones in lieu of traditional presents.

Radios provided entertainment. Sing-a-longs and party pieces, card games and board games were very popular when friends and family got together over the Christmas holidays. Some of the most popular Christmas songs, such as “White Christmas” and “I’ll be Home for Christmas,” date from the early 1940s.

Christmases during World War II had an underlying feeling of melancholy for both the Americans serving overseas, as well as those on the home front with empty places at the dinner table. Some of the most somber holiday standards were released during this period: “White Christmas” (1941), “I’ll Be Home for Christmas” (1943), and “Have Yourself a Merry Little Christmas” (1944).

This trio of now-classic songs resonated with soldiers longing for home, and their loved ones who dreamt of Christmases like the ones they used to know. As Green says, “Referring to [being home for Christmas] ‘if only in my dreams’ captured a lot of what was happening."

Fewer men at home resulted in fewer men available to dress up and play Santa Claus.
Women served as substitute Santas at Saks Fifth Avenue in New York City and at other
department stores throughout the United States.

Most people stayed home or visited neighbors within walking distance during the holidays. Rationing of tires and gasoline limited holiday travel.











Looking back with modern eyes at these frugal, make-do-and-mend war years, it’s easy for people today to feel sorry for those spending Christmas back then. However if you ask those who lived through the war, many will say that they look back fondly on their childhood Christmases. The simpler wartime Christmas was for many, a return to simple joys; the company of family and friends, and the giving and receiving of gifts made with care by loved ones.

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