A Quiet Christmas: Mass Observation and Wartime Festivities

03 January 2014

Cultural Studies | History

Christmas 1944With shortages in nearly everything considered necessary fora ‘proper’ Christmas, Mass Observers during WW2 needed to balance thetraditions of the festive season with the strictures and austerity ofwartime.  Mass Observation set out in aseries of reports to gauge not only the morale of the population, but how warwould affect their festivities. 

Paper shortages, toy shortages, food shortages and rationing hampered gift giving and parties. Increased prices, longer working hours and shorter opening times made shopping difficult if not impossible, and the blackout meant no streetlights or illuminated shop fronts. Christmas shopping in the darkness of winter, with no money and not much to buy was the least of people's concerns however, with fathers, husbands and sons away fighting and families divided by evacuation and bomb damage. Christmas was an added level of stress and worry to an already anxious existence.

For poorer families it was almost impossible to find toys, as demand far outstripped supply and prices rocketed:

The price is staggering but one has to buy something for the child.


My favourite discovery is this rather harsh bit of forward planning, to prepare her children for empty stockings on Christmas morning, from a 28 year old Clerk (noted down by a Mass Observer in November 1939):

Heaven knows we can’t afford it these days. I’ve told the kiddies some story or other about Father Christmas being a German, so he can’t come this year.

A cruel new layer to the Father Christmas myth, but perhaps a less painful story for her children to grasp than the truth of their pecuniary distress.

Home for Evacuees, Christmas 1941Turkey was off the menu for the majority, and even chicken was prohibitively expensive:

All these things are a wicked price, a poor man can’t possibly have them.

Many opted not to send Christmas cards or gifts:

What with the shortage of paper, and one thing and another, it isn’t fair to waste money and paper on such luxuries.

Despite all this this, it’s clear from the file reports, diaries and topic collections in our Mass Observation Online resource that many wartime families still clung to the idea of Christmas, and were determined to embrace the magic of the season:

The British Christmas is the embodiment of all the ideals we’re fighting for.


There seem to have been two approaches to the festivities - be frugal and prepare for the future, or be as lavish as possible and celebrate the present:

We aint got much money, but what we have got will go a longer way now than it will next year […] particularly if we’re all dead. So we might just as well have a proper do for Christmas.


Christmas 1944Christmas means different things to different people, but whatever your focus there’s a magic to this time of year, tied up in the celebration of warmth and comfort in an otherwise bleak, dark month. This is the essence of Mass Observation’s wartime discoveries. Christmas is more than food and presents and parties, more than religion and tradition, it’s a feeling and a state of mind, and Mass Observation showed year after year that despite morale, and shortages and setbacks and fears, people “made the best of it” and enjoyed themselves, grateful for what they did have.

Christmas is Christmas, war or no war.

Visit Mass Observation Online for more incredible insights into the extraordinary lives of ordinary people during World War 2.

About the Author

Sue Alway

During my time in Editorial I have worked on many fascinating collections, including Mass Observation Online and Popular Culture in Britain and America. I love working with historical documents, bringing individual lives into focus and finding the personal stories behind the facts.