Although World War II did not take a holiday, Americans at home and abroad did their best to celebrate Christmas. Wartime separations and deprivations made festivities poignant and bittersweet. This post looks at Christmas on the US Home Front. See also: Christmas for American servicemen and women.
Families on the US Home Front dealt with painful separations as sons and daughters, husbands and fathers were away from home in the service. The holiday season highlighted this pain. Those left at home wanted to make Christmas festive, especially for the children.
Gift giving presented unique challenges during World War II. While wartime income was high in the USA, few products were available on the shelves. Many consumer items weren’t manufactured due to shortages of raw materials and conversions of factories for military use. Clothing wasn’t rationed in the United States, but restrictions did apply and people were encouraged to make do with less. By 1944, a severe paper shortage even reduced the supply of books.
Hardest of all were the scarcities of toys for the children. Toys with metal or rubber parts weren’t available. Manufacturers switched to wood and cardboard and to the new plastics that were coming out. Popular wartime toys included dolls, wooden jeeps and airplanes, and “Bild-A-Sets,” which allowed children to construct cardboard play-sets, often with military themes.
The US government provided a solution to the gift dilemma and encouraged the purchase of war bonds for Christmas presents.
Christmas dinners weren’t quite as elaborate as before the war. Rationing of sugar and butter meant fewer sweets. Meat, including ham, was rationed. Although turkey wasn’t rationed, the armed services worked hard to provide turkey dinners to the servicemen overseas, which meant fewer turkeys on the Home Front.
The holiday tradition of traveling to visit family and friends had to be curtailed during the war. Gasoline was rationed, and civilians were discouraged from train travel to free the rail system for movement of troops and supplies.
Outdoor Christmas lights were one of the first wartime casualties. In Antioch, California, for example, outdoor Christmas lights were turned off on December 11, 1941, and the tradition of lighting the community Christmas tree was postponed for the duration. Blackout conditions on the West Coast, dim-outs on the East Coast, and later a nationwide dim-out to conserve fuel meant Christmas might be merry—but not quite as bright.
Christmas trees were harder to obtain due to labor shortages and shipping priorities, but were still available in many communities.
Christmas in World War II left a lasting musical legacy. Bing Crosby’s recording of “White Christmas” topped the charts in December 1942 and has since sold over 50 million copies, making it one of the biggest hits of all time. “I’ll Be Home for Christmas” was the hit for Christmas 1943, and Judy Garland’s “Have Yourself a Merry Little Christmas” was in the Top Ten in 1944. These songs share a soft melancholy, a nostalgia for home, a wistfulness for tradition, and an optimistic hope for the future that resonated in wartime and still resonates today.
Celebrating Christmas in World War II required ingenuity and flexibility, but Americans at home and abroad set aside their troubles to commemorate Christ’s birth.