Keep Calm and Carry On!
This could not be more appropriate when describing what became known as ‘Blitzmas’. In December 1940, Hitler’s Luftwaffe was doing its best to wipe British cities off the map. But the British public were having none of it and were determined to have the best possible holiday they could. Time magazine reported that Christmas parties were being held in the larger air-raid shelters, which provided safety for over one million people. Even the London theatres put on the usual Christmas Pantomimes. However, everyone suffered. It was not a normal Christmas by any means.
Gifts were difficult to come by. However, the Evening Standard reported that the Oxford Street pavements were congested and had a pre-war atmosphere. Luxuries such as silk stockings or French perfume were not to be found, but there was still liqueur chocolates available, and if you were lucky, you might find some figs or Turkish delight. Wine and spirits were plentiful but brandy was rare. The most popular present that Christmas was soap!
It was a ‘recycle’ Christmas. At home, decorations for the most part, were handmade, often by the children. Due to a paper shortage, scraps of paper, old Christmas cards, old newspapers, and brown paper were used to make ornaments and decorations. Presents were often homemade gifts wrapped in brown paper or even small pieces of cloth. Hand knitted items, such as hats and scarves were made by unravelling old jumpers and war bonds were bought and given as gifts, which helped the war effort. Homemade food items, such as chutneys and jams were popular and practical presents, along with items associated with gardening, like wooden dibbers for planting.
There was little reprieve from the misery of Blitzkrieg. Greater Manchester bore the brunt of the Luftwaffe’s attacks that Christmas. On the night of 22/23 December 272 tons of high explosive were dropped, and another 195 tons the following night. Almost 2,000 incendiaries were also dropped on the city over the two nights. It became known as the Christmas Blitz. In total, 684 people died and a further 2,300 were wounded with districts to the north and east of the city badly affected. At least 8,000 homes were made uninhabitable.
The royal family had to spend the holiday at a secret location in case the Nazi airmen attacked while George VI was giving his Christmas broadcast. But as a mark of solidarity with the British public, the royal Christmas card was a picture of the king and queen in the grounds of the bombed Buckingham Palace. Traditional carol singing was cancelled due to the bombing and black-out, festive lights were not to be found on the streets, and many people had to work on the 26th of December, Boxing Day, which was a public holiday.
Due to rationing and high prices, most could not afford the traditional turkey or goose. Housewives had to use all their ingenuity to find substitutes. Luckily, the Ministry of Food provided lots of information (see recipe below) and even films on the subject. (The Imperial War Museum has many examples of these.) The only concession came in the week before Christmas in 1940; the tea ration was doubled and the sugar allowance increased to 12 ounces.
It can’t have been easy to celebrate a normal Christmas with many families separated by war and loved ones fighting overseas. Even though there was a small respite from the bombing in London on Christmas and Boxing Day, by 29th December, many families were rushing for the safety of air raid shelters once more. The King’s speech on Christmas Day must have been the highlight for many families but in December 1940. the outlook still looked bleak.
“The future will be hard, but our feet are planted on the path of victory, and with the help of God we shall make our way to justice and to peace.” King George VI (Christmas 1940)
In Her Last Betrayal, the sequel to Her Secret War, Sarah Gillespie spends Christmas with her family in Hampshire and is delighted to be involved in the Hursley Amateur Dramatic Society’s production of Hayfever, which they put on for the locals just before Christmas. However, it is to be a tragic Christmas that Sarah will never forget …