Thursday 10 December 2020

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

Mission Briefing

Created during the lockdown of Winter 2020.

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

Gladys

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

Peter Penney

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

Jill

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.

Peter Matthews

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.