Jean Fullerton’s novels draw on the history of her native East End of London. Her Ration Book series, set during the Second World War, vividly describes Christmas at a time when cupboards were, if not bare, not stocked with treats, either. She tells Historia what wartime Christmases were like.
For centuries Christmas has been a time of celebration; however, during the dark days of World War II things weren’t so jolly.
Although war had been declared four months before Christmas, 1939 wasn’t too different from the previous year as the shops were fully stocked. However, with rationing looming at the start of January, the country decided to splash out for Christmas.
Bath cubes for mum, Manikin cigars for dad and Boy’s Own or Rupert the Bear annuals for children were popular presents.
With men in the army and awaiting the call-up stationary sets also sold well that year.
Although thousands of children were evacuated at the start of the war, as no bombs had fallen many had returned home. For those who remained the local communities did their best to stop them feeling homesick by putting on parties complete with a visit from Father Christmas.
The New Year bought blizzard conditions, which pretty much set the tone for 1940. Rationing started with bacon, sugar, and butter with meat added two months later in March. As the Spitfire summer turned into the Blitz autumn, Christmas loomed on the horizon again.
Throughout the Second World War there were precious few turkeys in the shops so ox heart, which is about the same size as a small turkey and can be stuffed and carved in much the same way, was a very popular; plus it was offal and so ‘off rations’.
Women saved their family’s sugar and fat allocation to make a Christmas cake for the big day. With the Ministry of War controlling all forestry, Christmas trees were like hens’ teeth so people made their own out of scraps of wood or cardboard. Decorations were the same, paperchains made out of women’s magazines and snowflakes made of Izal toilet paper pasted to the window.
With luxury goods having disappeared from the shops, people also resorted to making gifts, so you were likely to get something knitted or sewn. Children, too, had to make do with toys crafted in the garden shed.
Sweets had vanished almost as soon as the war started but there were many inventive ways of making them for yourself such as treacle toffee carrots and ‘chocolate’ made from golden syrup, cocoa powder and dried milk.
However, with shortages of certain foods ‘mock’ and ‘substitute’ became part of everyday culinary language. In lieu of black treacle the Ministry of Food suggested combining gravy powder with golden syrup to give the Christmas pudding its dark colour. They also recommended making marzipan with semolina and using liquid paraffin as a substitute for fat, although I wouldn’t recommend that if your toilet is at the end of the garden.
With U-boats sinking up to a third of all the ships travelling across the Atlantic everyone was urged to Dig for Victory. This was easier in country and suburban gardens, whereas in cities householders had to grow what they could in barrels and flowerpots.
Even if you had the smallest backyard you were encouraged to keep both chickens and rabbits and there’s a jolly wartime poster explaining that two rabbits left to their own devices could produce 45 pounds of meat in a year.
From the seven o’clock news in the morning through to the epilogue at midnight, the BBC’s Home Service was central to family life. At Christmas there were carol concerts and the morning church service. The King would speak to the nation in the afternoon after which a concert with music and popular comic acts of the day were broadcast along with plays and panel discussions.
By Christmas 1941, much to the relief of the beleaguered housewives, the lend-lease scheme made food from the US, like dried egg and milk, available. In addition, the Ministry of Food introduced a point system in December 1941. However, instead of a straightforward coupon system the points required for purchase varied each week and, to be honest, if you were a housewife feeding a family on rations and points, a degree in mathematics would have come in handy.
Although by Christmas 1942 the war was turning in the Allies favour and more was reaching our shores, if anything that year was even bleaker than the one before. During the course of the year rice, dried fruit, tinned tomatoes and peas, biscuits and soap had been put on rations, the civilian petrol allowance was cut and the whole country’s manufacturing base had been turned over to the war effort.
People resorted to war bonds, book tokens and more knitting and sewing as gifts. However, although the American GIs in wartime Britain are often caricatured as ‘over paid, over sexed and over ere’, many of them put on Christmas parties for children near their bases. GIs also adopted local families and often arrived for visits bearing very welcomed gifts of tinned vegetables and meat.
With the arrival of the American the wireless got better too as people in Britain could tune into their popular band music programmes instead of just the BBC.
By Christmas 1944 the Home Guards, Auxiliary Fire Service and ARP wardens had been stood down and the blackout changed to a dim-out; the end of the war was in sight. However, with V1s dropping from the sky and rationing tighter than ever, there was still no reprieve for the poor housewife trying to pull everything together for Christmas. There was so little in the shops that, along with the usual knitted offerings, portrait photographs with seasonal greetings were acceptable as gifts.
Thankfully, before Christmas 1945 rolled around the war both in Europe and with Japan was over. However, although the lights were back on rationing remained and would do so until 1953. Housewives again had to use ‘mock’ this and ‘substitute’ that to put something resembling a Christmas dinner on the table for their family.
Although sadly over half a million British and Commonwealth men and women had died during the course of World War II, many families did have the one thing they really needed for a happy Christmas: their loved ones home.
Find out more about A Ration Book Christmas Kiss.
World War II kitchen by Alex Liivet: via Flickr
A Christmas party held at Admiralty House, London, 17 December 1942: Imperial War Museum via Wikimedia
Knitting pattern for Land Army pullover and hose: via Women’s Land Army and Timber Corps
A family relaxes at home in Taunton, Somerset, on a Sunday afternoon during 1942: Imperial War Museum via Wikimedia
Tell Them to Make It a War Savings Christmas, poster: Imperial War Museum via Wikimedia