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Festivity amid the fighting: Christmas on the British Home Front in World War Two.

by Elly Barnett – @eleanorrbarnett

By Christmas 1940 almost all of Britain’s major cities had been hit by extensive bombing raids, amongst them the devastating London Blitz of September and the destruction of Coventry in November. 24,000 British civilians had died, and families were displaced as children were evacuated from cities and parents went to serve in the war.[1]

Amongst such devastation, Christmas was an important religious and social occasion, as families and friends endeavoured to continue to come together to celebrate as they had done before the war. Today Christmas denotes consumption. Most of us spend copious amounts of time buying, wrapping, and unwrapping gifts, and preparing and eating the Christmas Day feast, traditionally defined by a gravy-laden turkey and a Christmas cake or pudding. Yet, in 1940s Britain, consumption was, of course, limited by war-time scarcity.

Food rationing began in January 1940 with butter and bacon. The weekly allowance of bacon was four ounces, butter was six ounces, whilst tea was limited to two ounces per week and sugar to eight. These limits only increased in the following years, with cheese, jam (or preserves), eggs and milk being added to the list in 1941.

Recognising the importance of the festive season for morale on the Home Front, the government made certain foodstuffs, such as tea and sugar, more available in time for Christmas. Certain foods, like potatoes, vegetables, and fish were never rationed (although the latter could be very hard to come by), and the “Dig for Victory” campaign encouraged home-grown produce, so that both meat and vegetables were cultivated in allotments, parks, and gardens. What’s more, families often saved up food coupons months prior, in preparation for the Christmas meal.

The Ministry of Food (set up on 8 September 1939) made special Christmas announcements each year along with thrifty festive recipe ideas. In 1943 it claimed, “We can still make Christmas fare hearty, tempting and appetising to look at. Here with our very best wishes, are some ideas which may help you.”

The Christmas feast, however, was a test of ingenuity. Turkey was largely unaffordable, and meat in general was expensive, especially by 1943. Amongst the Ministry’s suggestions for housewives, therefore, was ‘Mock Goose’, which was mainly constructed out of (unrationed) potatoes:

‘1 ½ lb potatoes

2 large cooking apples

4 oz cheese

½ teaspoon dried sage

salt and pepper

¾ pint vegetable stock

1 tablespoon flour

Scrub and slice potatoes thinly: slice apples, grate cheese. Grease an ovenproof dish, place a layer of potatoes in it, cover with apple and a little sage, season lightly and sprinkle with cheese, repeat layers leaving potatoes and cheese to cover. Pour in half a pint of the stock, cook in a moderate oven for 45 minutes. Blend the flour with the remainder of the stock, pour into the dish and cook for another quarter of an hour. Serve as a main dish with a green vegetable’. [2]

Other food substitutes were employed, such as ‘mock turkey’ made from lamb. For the Christmas cake soya flour was used in the place of almond paste, and some recipes were published for Christmas cakes without using eggs, which had been rationed to around one per week per person from 1941. Icing sugar was not available and banned from 1942, but the cake could be iced with a mixture of boiled sugar and egg white (dry milk powder if there were no eggs), or simply from melted marshmallows.

Festivities, too, didn’t necessarily have to end during the war. Katherine Knight remembers a neighbourhood party in Cornwall that took place on Christmas Eve, which included games for the children (musical bumps, blind man’s bluff), and a local man dressed as Father Christmas. Bunting for the event was made out of scraps of wallpaper.[3] Those spending Christmas in air-raid shelters in towns used similar makeshift decorations and could purchase small Christmas trees that would fit inside.

Citizens were encouraged by government bodies like the National Savings Committee to give money to the war effort rather than to buy presents, and copious magazines were published in the weeks before Christmas suggesting home-maid gift ideas. In December 1944 Woman magazine, for instance, advised the reader to make and distribute ‘half-pound of home-made sweets’.[4] Toys could be made out of old stockings, curtains or other pieces of fabrics. All of the presents would not have been wrapped, however, since wrapping paper was banned in 1941 to conserve paper.

Above all, these stories of war-time Christmas consumption evidence the necessary resilience and creativity of those on the Home Front, and their ability to “Keep Calm and Carry On” in the face of hardship.

[1] http://www.bbc.co.uk/history/topics/christmas_in_world_war_two

[2] Reproduced in Susie Hodge, The Home Front in World War Two (Barnsley, 2012), 54.

[3] Katherine Knight, Rationing in the Second World War: spuds, spam and eating for victory (Stroud, 2011), 185.

[4] http://www.bbc.co.uk/history/british/britain_wwtwo/christmas_underfire_01.shtml

Picture: National Savings Committee, London 1944. From Wikimedia Commons.

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