44 Powerful Photos Of How The World Celebrated Christmas Amid The Chaos And Bloodshed Of World War II
By Kaleena Fraga | Edited By Cara Johnson
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.
And if you liked this post, be sure to check out these popular posts:
1 of 45
A Christmas dance for African-American soldiers in Texas. Dec. 23, 1943. Facebook/Friends of the National World War II Memorial
2 of 45
Brigadier General Anthony McAuliffe and his staff enjoying Christmas dinner at Bastogne's Heintz Barracks. Dec. 25, 1944.
A few days before, McAuliffe famously replied to a German demand for surrender with one word: "NUTS!"Facebook/WW II uncovered
3 of 45
British soldiers celebrating Christmas in Italy. Dec. 25, 1943. Facebook/WW II uncovered
4 of 45
American soldiers stand around a makeshift Christmas tree decorated with surgical cotton wool and cigarette cartons in Buna, Papua New Guinea. Dec. 5, 1942.Australian War Memorial Collection
5 of 45
U.S. Army Sergeant Joseph H. Kadlec delivering Christmas packages sent to soldiers. Near Aachen, Germany. Nov. 14, 1944.Facebook/Friends of the National World War II Memorial
6 of 45
A young British boy receives a Christmas card. He is also holding a bag with candy and a new toy, which was donated by Americans through the British War Relief Society.Imperial War Museums
7 of 45
Nine-month-old Takashi Yoshida at the Granada Relocation Center in Colorado. Like thousands of other Americans of Japanese descent, Yoshida's family was sent to internment camps during World War II. Dec. 24, 1943. National Archives
8 of 45
A soldier with a makeshift Christmas tree during World War II.Facebook/Friends of the National World War II Memorial
9 of 45
A Nazi Christmas party hosted by Adolf Hitler. 1941.Facebook/History In Pictures
10 of 45
Christmas packages sent to soldiers who were killed or missing in action soon to be labeled with "return to sender" stickers.Facebook/History In Pictures
11 of 45
Soldiers getting chocolate as a belated Christmas gift. Circa December 1944. National Archives and Records Administration
12 of 45
Soldiers on the USS Lexington celebrating Christmas, complete with "Santa Claus" on the right. December 1944. U.S. Signal Corps Archive
13 of 45
Father Christmas presents Winston Churchill's grandson with a gift as other children look on. London. Dec. 17, 1942.Imperial War Museums
14 of 45
The preparation of Christmas care packages in Berlin for the less fortunate. December 1935.German Federal Archives
15 of 45
Jack Ward of 9th Medium Regiment, Royal Artillery, holds two geese about to become Christmas dinner. Geilenkirchen, Germany. Dec. 19, 1944.War Office Second World War Official Collection
16 of 45
Children enjoy Christmas dinner at a home for evacuees at Henley-on-Thames, Oxfordshire. 1941.Ministry of Information Second World War Official Collection
17 of 45
Bombardier Finley of Glasgow, a gunner in Holland, writing a Christmas card. Dec. 8, 1944.War Office Second World War Official Collection
18 of 45
Christmas dinner on the USS Albemarle. Undated.National Museum of the U.S. Navy
19 of 45
A Christmas tree delivery, sent to "Mrs. Devereux" in London by her soldier husband. 1944.Ministry of Information Second World War Official Collection
20 of 45
Mrs. Devereux and her daughter pull a Christmas cracker with their new tree in the background. On the top of the tree is a picture of Mr. Devereux. 1944.Imperial War Museums
21 of 45
Mrs. Devereux, her daughter, and some of her daughter's friends enjoying Christmas dinner. 1944.Ministry of Information Second World War Official Collection
22 of 45
American soldiers gather around a fire and open Christmas presents in Belgium. Dec. 30, 1944.U.S. Army Center of Military History
23 of 45
A child in London, England, choses from toys donated by Americans as Christmas gifts. 1944.Ministry of Information Second World War Official Collection
24 of 45
Private Walter Przybyla of the U.S. 2nd Infantry Division writing Christmas cards for friends and family while in Heckhalenfeld, Germany. Nov. 30, 1944.U.S. Army Signal Corps
25 of 45
Soldiers from the Royal Artillery show off chickens meant for Christmas dinner. Dec. 24, 1944.War Office Second World War Official Collection
26 of 45
WAVE Ensign Sarah B. Corkern holds packages meant for Navy Bluejackets in time for Christmas. 1944.National Museum of the U.S. Navy
27 of 45
Soldiers opening Christmas presents. Undated.The National WWII Museum Digital Collections
28 of 45
British choirboys sing to entertain American troops at a Christmas party. 1944.Ministry of Information Second World War Official Collection
29 of 45
A female Santa in a London department store. With most men away at war, women filled traditionally male roles, like Santa. UK Ministry of Information
30 of 45
A child tells Santa (played by a woman) what she wants for Christmas at the home for evacuees at Henley-on-Thames, Oxfordshire. 1941.Ministry of Information Second World War Official Collection
31 of 45
Adolf Hitler at a Christmas party. December 1940German Federal Archives
32 of 45
Children in England make their own Christmas decorations from scratch. 1944.Imperial War Museums
33 of 45
American Red Cross workers check packages bound for soldiers fighting in the Pacific Theater. 1944.
American Red Cross
34 of 45
An American soldier enjoys some turkey while holding his position. Undated. The National WWII Museum Digital Collections
35 of 45
Christmas on the HMAS Benalla in the Pacific Theater. 1944.Australian War Memorial Archive
36 of 45
A young child looks up as his soldier father lifts his mother to wish her Merry Christmas. New York City. December 1944.National Archives and Records Administration
37 of 45
"Santa" hands out gifts to wounded soldiers on Guadalcanal. 1942.Facebook/History In Pictures
38 of 45
Nazi propagandist Joseph Goebbels at Christmas with his family. Dec. 23, 1937.German Federal Archives
39 of 45
U.S. soldiers cheerfully prepare a turkey feast for Christmas. December 1944.The National WWII Museum Digital Collection
40 of 45
Royal Artillery cooks prepare Christmas dinner near Geilenkirchen, Germany. Dec. 25, 1944.War Office Second World War Official Collection
41 of 45
German soldiers gather around a small Christmas tree. Dec. 15, 1944.German Federal Archives
42 of 45
American soldiers open Christmas presents as they await orders. France. Dec. 15, 1944.U.S. Army Signal Corps
43 of 45
Soldiers share the contents of a Christmas care package sent by one of their wives. Circa December 1944.U.S. Army Signal Corps
44 of 45
German soldiers celebrate Christmas together. 1944.Public Domain
44 Powerful Photos Of How The World Celebrated Christmas Amid The Chaos And Bloodshed Of World War II
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.
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
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."
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.
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.