Christmas 2020? Channel the Blitz spirit!

This isn’t the first time Britain has had to adapt for the big day – but at least we don’t have to dish up the turkey in a bunker.

Christmas party in tube shelter 1940
In 1940 Londoners were encouraged to move parties and decorations to tube shelters to create a ‘Christmas fairyland’. Image: mediadrumimages/TopFoto

Throughout the Covid crisis we’ve been urged to rely on the famous ‘Blitz spirit’ – but what did that look like when it came to Christmas? Like 2020, 1940 ended very differently to the way it began.

In January 1940, four months into what had been dubbed the ‘Phoney War’ with Germany, there had been no major military engagements. More British civilians had died in road accidents as a result of the blackout than servicemen in action. Nor was there any apparent danger on the home front. The anticipated air raids had failed to materialise, and around half of the 1.5 million evacuees sent from cities to the countryside had returned home.

But by November 1940, everything had changed. France had fallen to the Germans and 68,000 British personnel had been killed, captured or gone missing in the evacuation from Dunkirk in May and June. The nation had braced itself for an imminent German invasion, watched the Battle of Britain rage in the skies above them from July until the end of October, and experienced all the horrors of the Blitz – the Nazis’ attempt to bomb ordinary Britons into submission. City centres across the country lay in ruins.

Thousands of civilians were dead, many were homeless, while 200,000 children had been parted from parents again, and even more men had been waved off to war by loved ones. Even as the countdown to Christmas began, there was no let-up in the Luftwaffe’s relentless campaign that saw night-time bombing wreak havoc on Birmingham, Bristol, Southampton and Liverpool. Newspaper headlines suggested the festive season would be a gloomy one, with an anticipated shortage of turkeys, the cancellation of the Boxing Day bank holiday for those involved in war work and confirmation that leave for troops – still on alert against invasion – would be extremely limited. Finally came the Government’s plea to make this a ‘stay-where-you-are Christmas’ to keep the roads and railways clear for the transport of war supplies.

Couple kissing in gas masks
Gas masks couldn’t shut out mistetoe’s magic. Image: Image: Getty Images

After all the tragedies of the year, not everyone felt like making merry. But even those who craved a Christmas-sized slice of normality found festive feeling hard to conjure in the run-up to the big day. Twinkling tree lights in town centres, carollers and after-work window shopping were all casualties of the blackout, which left streets pitch black from early evening. Gift buying was a test of patience, as author Anthony Richards discovered when he delved into the Imperial War Museum’s archives for its new book, Wartime Christmas.

‘I shopped under difficulties as there were incessant raid warnings,’ a complaint from Londoner Mrs Barnicot reads. ‘The roof spotter rings a violent bell and the lights are turned off and everybody marches… to the basements… till the danger is past.’

Yet, in spite of everything, there remained an irrepressible determination to carry on with Christmas as usual. ‘If Hitler thinks he’s going to prevent me from buying my Christmas presents, it just shows that he doesn’t know me!’ an elderly lady was overheard saying in one of London’s stores – all resolutely open, unlike during this November’s lockdown. The same resilient spirit echoed across shop counters countrywide. ‘People were really willing to embrace Christmas,’ Anthony says. ‘If you look at the accounts from the time, sometimes it’s almost as if they’ve forgotten we’re at war. People have questioned the [reality of the] Blitz spirit in recent years, but it’s true, the evidence is there.’

Naturally, some elements of a traditional Christmas required adjustment – such as greetings cards. The Royal Family opted for one reflecting national stoicism: the King and Queen in front of a bomb-damaged Buckingham Palace. Quickly dubbed a ‘Blitzmas’ card, the American press reported that jokey variations on the theme bearing messages such as ‘Wishing you anything but a Jerry Christmas’ were proving popular.

London sorting office
A deluge of festive parcels at a London sorting office. Image: DM Archive

Presents were also more practical – woollen sleeping bags and warm dressing gowns for nights in the shelter, or small luxuries like soap; and for children, soldiers or soft toys knitted while underground. The Post Office reported a record Christmas in many areas as brown-paper parcels winged their way to evacuees and absent relatives.

Decorations migrated down to cellars and out to Anderson air-raid shelters in gardens. London Transport wanted to ‘turn the tube shelters into a Christmas fairyland with coloured lights and seasonal decorations’, according to The Daily Telegraph, while local councils encouraged communities to deck the halls of their local shelters, awarding prizes for the best.

Christmas 1940 looked different but not dismal. The message from the Daily Mirror urged its readers, ‘Stay Put – but not Stay Glum’. For the people of Manchester and Merseyside in particular that was no small request – both areas were hit by particularly fierce bombing campaigns during Christmas week itself. Incendiaries and high-explosive bombs rained down over Manchester city centre on 22 and 23 December, destroying 8,000 homes and killing around 700 people, many Christmas partygoers among them.

Yet somehow, the Christmas spirit survived. Last-minute shoppers were out in force on Christmas Eve. ‘Incendiaries have burnt my house roof and finished off my turkey at the shop – but that’ll not get me down,’ Mrs Boardman, shopping for a new hat, told the Manchester Evening News, while two men were observed searching a windowless shop for silk stockings. And when Christmas Day dawned, the Northwest, like the rest of the nation, forged on with the festivities – differently, but by no means cancelled.

Santa hands out presents to evacuees
Santa hands out presents to evacuees from South London. Image: Getty Images

For many across the country the celebrations began at church. The blackout regulations lent an especially Christmassy atmosphere to the traditional 8am Communion services, which went ahead by the light of altar candles – though, disappointingly, without the triumphant yuletide peal of church bells, which were reserved for use as an invasion warning.

At lunchtime, families tucked gratefully into turkey substitutes such as roast beef or rabbit, with Christmas puddings and plentiful wine and beer – two things not yet in short supply. Many were joined at their dinner tables by servicemen from local bases following a successful appeal for civilians to give a merry Christmas to those unable to go home. ‘Somebody’ll be doing it for my lad, so say nowt abaht it,’ a Yorkshire woman told her guests, speaking for many a mother in The Bradford Observer that December.

Communities rallied round to ensure no one went without. The newly homeless were offered Christmas dinners with all the trimmings at rest centres or communal kitchens run by the Women’s Voluntary Service (now the Royal Voluntary Service). In rural areas, parties for evacuees were hosted in town halls – in Bedford, 400 evacuees of all ages were entertained with games and singing round the piano. In London, 80 children from badly blitzed Paddington were given a happy holiday courtesy of the newly opened American Eagle Club, the haunt of US servicemen – one of whom gamely played Santa.

Closeted away in an unidentified countryside location (actually Windsor Castle), the Royal Family couldn’t make their annual appearance at Sandringham church, but King George VI still gave his radio broadcast live at 3pm. ‘Remember this,’ he urged Britons. ‘If war brings its separations it brings new unity also – the unity which comes from common perils and common sufferings willingly shared.’

Generally agreed to be the highlight of the BBC’s Christmas programming, though, was the exchange of messages between children evacuated overseas and their parents back in Britain. Listening in to little boys respond to questions about Canada with characteristic nonchalance – ‘oh, it’s all right’ – and give parents the measure of their Christmas with the news that they’d had stomach ache three times, brought a much-needed warm and fuzzy feeling into the nation’s front rooms.

For many, it was the little things that provided the most seasonal cheer: a whole day without depressing headlines or lengthy news bulletins; a telegram that brought tidings of comfort and joy from a loved one miles away. In Birmingham, one little girl simply relished the chance to play in ‘the unaccustomed space of the living room’ in the evening, while the air-raid sirens stayed curiously silent. The complete absence of Luftwaffe activity in the skies overhead was a pleasant surprise – it was, the papers almost universally agreed, ‘a quiet Christmas – in the best sense’.

Even so, 120,000 people chose to descend underground to London’s tube stations as dusk fell, ‘still wearing paper caps’ and, as writer Stephen Spender wryly observed, ‘armed against the terror of possible air-raids with Christmas crackers’. At Liverpool Street, ‘500 children sat down in two relays to a first-class tea… with fruit and cream, bread and jam and various cakes’ and, as at other stations, they came away with gifts paid for by donations from well-wishers. ‘Family parties… overlapped and intermingled’ reported The Times, as seasoned shelterers enjoyed Christmas puddings from government-sponsored canteens and games of charades under the glow of the coloured lights, while ‘girls in party frocks whirled on the platforms to dance music’. The strains of Christmas carols even echoed along the tunnels as Salvation Army singers toured the capital’s stations.

Christmas crackers in an air-raid shelter
Cracker time around the table in the air-raid shelter. Image: Getty Images

After months of turbulence on the home front, peace and goodwill reigned. Briefly. The celebrations provided only a short respite from the realities of the war; the bombers were back with a vengeance on 27 December, and so ferocious was the attack on the capital two nights later that it came to be known as the Second Great Fire of London.

But, however fleetingly, Christmas 1940 had provided a welcome opportunity to forget the present, to remember happy times in the past and look forward to a brighter future. And it can do the same for us this year.

Wartime Christmas by Anthony Richards is published by Imperial War Museum, price £12.99, iwmshop.org.uk. To order a copy for £11.95 until 3 January go to mailshop.co.uk/books or call 020 3308 9193. Free UK delivery on orders over £15.

Words: Felicity Day