• Evacuees
  • Families

We Were There: Memories of Christmas during the Second World War

CBBC's Ben Shires brings you a Family Mission inspired by IWM's We Were There team. The We Were There team are a group of volunteers who have witnessed conflict. They work at the museum talking to our school and family visitors, retelling their experiences and true life stories. For this Family Mission we spoke to members of the team who lived through the Second World War and told us some of their Christmas memories during wartime.

Mission Briefing

Created during the lockdown of Winter 2020.

Greetings! Tis the season to be jolly. It's the most wonderful time of the year. These familiar sayings are a reminder of why people have been so determined to celebrate Christmas even during the hardest of times. Whether on the battlefields or on the home front it must sometimes have been a real struggle to stay jolly. 

The Imperial War Museums are home to the stories of those who have lived through challenging times and during the Second World War Christmas was a very challenging and different time indeed. For a start, wrapping paper was banned, food was rationed, money was tight, not only that but many children were separated from their families over Christmas. One such child was Gladys who now works at the museum sharing her stories with the public. She sent us this letter:  

“The Christmas when I was seven, I remember we had been evacuated to Leigh near Tonbridge. Our teacher didn't want us to miss out on Christmas which is why she said we should make decorations to brighten up our classroom. We were each given coloured strips of paper and flour and water. We mixed this to a paste because we had no glue. This was just as good as after a while it stuck, but you had to be careful with it to make sure it had stuck to the paper firmly and it was nice and messy. We took a strip of the coloured paper and put the paste on the ends which would fix into a loop, then we would pass a strip of a different colour through the loop and paste the ends of that one and so on until we had enough to string across the ceiling from one light fitting to another. There was a park beyond the churchyard and the first time I saw the deer and real holly and mistletoe I thought there really is a Christmas because it looked so magical.”  

Inspired by Gladys's story, I'm making my own festive paper chain and you can do it at home too. It's so easy so head over to the IWM website where you can read more stories from our volunteers who were children during the Second World War as well.  And from all of us here, we wish you a very merry Christmas! 

Gladys

A group of young children at Fen Ditton Junior School design and make their own Christmas decorations.
Fen Ditton Junior School design and make their own Christmas decorations. © IWM D 23619

The Christmas when I was seven I remember we had been evacuated to Leigh near Tonbridge. Our teacher didn’t want us to miss out on Christmas which is why she said we should make decorations to brighten up our classroom. It wasn’t a real classroom in a school as us evacuees were taught in the church hall.  

We were each given coloured strips of paper about an inch wide and flour and water. We mixed this to a paste because we had no glue. This was just as good as after a while it stuck but you had to be careful with it to make sure it had stuck the paper firmly, and it was nice and messy!

We took a strip of the coloured paper and put the paste on the ends which would fix it into a loop, then we would pass a strip of a different colour through the loop and paste the ends of that one and so on until we had enough to string across the ceiling from one light fitting to another.

I also remember making paper garlands as well.

There was a park beyond the churchyard and the first time I saw the deer and real holly and mistletoe I thought: ‘There really is a Christmas’, because it looked so magical.

Peter Penney

Child's Christmas stocking with contents made from wartime low quality paper © IWM EPH 3663
Child's Christmas stocking with contents made from wartime low quality paper © IWM EPH 3663

The first Christmas of 1939 my brother and I got some really nice toys including a push bike, some sweets and an orange, but as the war progressed things got more and more difficult to get hold of… On the last Christmas of the war, in 1944 I got a large book about Robin Hood.

Jill

Mrs Devereux and her daughter celebrate Christmas at their home in Pinner, Middlesex, 1944.
Mrs Devereux and her daughter celebrate Christmas at their home in Pinner, Middlesex, 1944.© IWM D 23008

For the first Christmas of the war I was an evacuee and spent Christmas in Launceston, Devon. It was a very quiet affair. We had a chicken and we went into the parlour – the one and only time (apart from dusting) that I was let into the parlour. The fire was lit, but because we only had oil lamps in there, we weren’t allowed to run about. One of our presents was a big compendium of games and so we played Snakes and Ladders, Ludo and Draughts and we had packs of cards – Happy Families and things like that. When I returned to London one Christmas we celebrated with all of the crew of my father’s fire engine. We used recipes for Christmas puddings that were published in the newspapers using grated carrot and apple- all sorts of things that you would never dream of putting in it! You could get dried fruit and tinned peaches but you bought them throughout the year whenever you could get them and hoarded them away.

The most wonderful Christmas surprise was on Christmas morning when my mother said to me ‘have you got any presents?’ I said that I didn’t know as it was too dark to see. My mum told me to put the light on, I turned the light on and the Christmas tree lit up and it was the first time we’d been able to have electric fairy lights on the tree as up until then all of the houses I had lived in up until had only had gaslighting not electricity. It really was a wonderful surprise that morning.

Peter Matthews

© IWM (HU 20951) Three French POWs smile for the camera as they hold up their special Christmas food at Stalag Luft III, Sagan, 25 December 1942.
© IWM (HU 20951) Three French POWs smile for the camera as they hold up their special Christmas food at Stalag Luft III, Sagan, 25 December 1942.

Meat was quite scarce, I remember my uncle, who worked as a chef in a hotel, managed to get a Christmas treat of a chicken and he was carrying this chicken home on the bus and he was offered almost an average week’s wages of £5 to sell the chicken to another passenger on the bus; he didn’t accept it!

Explore Further

'Father Christmas' presenting Winston Churchill’s grandson with a gift at a Christmas party for Allied naval officers' children.
IWM A 13308
Second World War

How Britain Celebrated Christmas During The Second World War

Six years of war brought many changes to familiar festive rituals. Christmas celebrations during the Second World War often had to be scaled down or adjusted as restrictions and shortages took their toll.