44 Powerful Photos Of How The World Celebrated Christmas Amid The Chaos And Bloodshed Of World War II

Published December 18, 2023

From makeshift trees on the front lines to bombs painted with "Merry Xmas Adolf," see how soldiers and their loved ones back home celebrated Christmas in the U.S., Europe, and the Pacific during World War II.

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44 Powerful Photos Of How The World Celebrated Christmas Amid The Chaos And Bloodshed Of World War II
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In December 1939, King George VI sat down to give an especially somber Christmas speech. World War II had begun just months earlier, and people across the globe were steeling themselves for hard times.

"The festival which we know as Christmas is above all the festival of peace and of the home," the king said in his Christmas broadcast. "But true peace is in the hearts of men, and it is the tragedy of this time that there are powerful countries whose whole direction and policy are based on aggression and the suppression of all that we hold dear for mankind."

Indeed, World War II, which lasted for almost six more years, would change everyone's lives in ways big and small. And it would certainly change Christmas. Across the world, people found new ways to keep the spirit of the holiday alive even as they missed or mourned loved ones.

In the gallery above, see how Christmas during World War II looked on the front lines and the home front. And below, learn how the holiday changed for people around the globe as they celebrated during the conflict.

Celebrating Christmas On The Home Front

Think about Christmas. What comes to mind? Maybe a Christmas tree, a big dinner, and opening gifts with family. But for people celebrating Christmas during World War II, these familiar rituals took on a completely different form.

For starters, Christmas trees were hard to come by. The men who'd traditionally chopped them down had been shipped off to war. (This lack of men also meant that women began dressing up as Santa Claus). Instead, families began buying artificial trees.

Woman Decorating A Tree

Library of CongressAn American woman decorates a tree in 1943. Many people switched to artificial trees during World War II and replaced ornaments made of tin or aluminum with paper and string.

People also had to make adjustments when it came to decorating their trees. Wartime shortages of tin and aluminum meant that people couldn't buy the ornaments they'd previously been able to purchase. To substitute, families made their own ornaments out of paper, string, and pinecones. Magazines even offered cut-out patterns.

Christmas dinner certainly looked different as well. Things like sugar and butter were rationed (which led to the emergence of ration-friendly recipes like "Victory Cakes" and gelatin-based desserts), and many families in the United States skipped turkey so that it could be sent abroad to the troops.

Christmas during World War II was different in other ways as well, especially for people of Japanese descent in the United States. After Pearl Harbor, roughly 125,000 Japanese Americans were sent to internment camps where, despite their incarceration, they celebrated Christmas with decorations, cards, and caroling.

Abroad, soldiers similarly tried to keep the Christmas spirit alive.

How Soldiers Celebrated Christmas During World War II

German Soldiers Around A Tree

Sueddeutsche Zeitung Photo / Alamy Stock PhotoGerman soldiers around a small Christmas tree. 1940.

In 1943, Captain George Nabb Jr. of the 115th Infantry Regiment wrote a letter to his wife and young son, the National WWII Museum reports. "[I]t doesn't seem like Xmas in the least," he said, noting that they did, however, get the day off and a turkey dinner.

Nabb continued: "We all drank a toast just before dinner to our next Xmas in the U.S.A. I hope and pray we shall be there."

Despite the hopes of Nabb and his fellow soldiers, it would be more than a year before many of them could return home for Christmas. Instead, they had to celebrate the holiday the best they could from the front lines.

The soldiers put up Christmas trees (this was true in both Europe and the Pacific, though the soldiers in the Pacific had to get creative), feasted on turkey dinners, and enjoyed Christmas care packages sent by loved ones at home.

"It was really the wrappings that I loved — the little personal touches of just your own," Lieutenant Colonel James H. Polk wrote to his wife in 1944.

But in 1945, World War II finally started to come to a close. In May, Germany surrendered. That September, Japan also surrendered after the United States dropped atomic bombs on Hiroshima and Nagasaki. Then, militaries across the world started to figure out how to bring their troops home.

The U.S. Army and Navy wanted to make sure that soldiers could be home for Christmas. Thus, they launched Operation Magic Carpet in September 1945, quickly followed by Operation Santa Claus.

Though the logistical challenge of transporting thousands of people meant that not every soldier got home in time for Christmas, most were happy to simply be back in the United States. Per TIME, one of the 150,000 soldiers stranded on the West Coast during Christmas 1945 told a reporter that being back in his home country was "the best Christmas present a man could have."

After looking through these photos of WWII Christmases around the world, see these vintage Christmas images from holidays past. Or, check out these creepy Victorian Christmas cards that people actually sent each other in the 19th century.

Kaleena Fraga
A staff writer for All That's Interesting, Kaleena Fraga has also had her work featured in The Washington Post and Gastro Obscura, and she published a book on the Seattle food scene for the Eat Like A Local series. She graduated from Oberlin College, where she earned a dual degree in American History and French.
Cara Johnson
A writer and editor based in Charleston, South Carolina and an assistant editor at All That's Interesting, Cara Johnson holds a B.A. in English and Creative Writing from Washington & Lee University and an M.A. in English from College of Charleston and has written for various publications in her six-year career.
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Fraga, Kaleena. "44 Powerful Photos Of How The World Celebrated Christmas Amid The Chaos And Bloodshed Of World War II." AllThatsInteresting.com, December 18, 2023, https://allthatsinteresting.com/world-war-2-christmas-photos. Accessed June 24, 2024.