Less than three weeks after the December 7, 1941 attack on Pearl Harbor, Americans celebrated their first Christmas of World War II. On the surface, it didn’t look much different than it had in previous years, as the bulk of the men and women who would serve overseas had not yet been deployed. But no amount of tinsel could alleviate the fear and uncertainty that came with the United States entering another world war.
As the war ground on, U.S. men and women were shipped overseas, food rationing began and Americans were forced to adjust.
“For those still in the United States, it was very difficult to celebrate,” says Pam Frese, professor of sociology and anthropology at the College of Wooster. “No matter where [people were located] during World War II, they were in survival mode.”
This was particularly true for women, she explains. Many women not only found themselves in the position of being the head of their household, but also being called upon to contribute to war effort by taking on production jobs in factories and other roles previously reserved for men.
“While their husbands were gone, women took care of their kids, they worked, they kept things going here,” says Frese, an expert in the celebration of holidays and cultural rituals in the United States. “They also, in their minds, took over the role of their husband and themselves at home.”
Meanwhile, those serving in the war faced Christmas in unfamiliar locations, surrounded by their fellow soldiers instead of their families. Back stateside, Japanese Americans who had been forced to move into prison camps, used the holiday as a way to retain a semblance of normalcy.
Here are a few examples of how Americans found ways to celebrate Christmas during World War II.
Women Step in to Play Santa
With a large portion of the workforce off fighting in the war, women took on a variety of both civilian and military roles that were typically filled by men, including playing Santa. There is evidence of this taking place even earlier—including a 1935 report that a woman “impersonating Santa Claus” had a heart attack and died while distributing presents at a New York City community center—but the practice became more common during the war.
That said, female Kris Kringles were still novel enough to make the news. For example, in 1942, the Brooklyn Daily Eagle reported that a woman was hired to play Santa at a New Jersey F.W. Woolworth store in 1942 after management was “unable to find a man suitable for the job,” while an Associated Press photo featured a “lady Santa Claus” listening to children’s Christmas wishes in a Chicago department store. Outside of retail, some women donned the red suit for a good cause, like a Boston law student who helped the Volunteers of America “overcome the manpower shortage in their annual Christmas collection” in 1944.
Not everyone was on board with women portraying the Jolly Old Elf. This included a columnist for the St. Louis Post-Dispatch, who, in 1942, described seeing a woman Santa in a department store—complete with “cut-down gray whiskers” and a pillow serving as her round belly—as “the shock of [his] life,” adding that he “[felt] sorry for the kids” of the day.
Women weren’t the only ones changing the public face of Santa Claus. In 1943, Blumstein's department store in Harlem hired a Black Santa, reportedly making it the first retailer in the country to do so. It’s unclear whether the decision was related to the war, but by 1946, at least one other department store, located in Chicago’s South Side neighborhood, followed suit.
Artificial Christmas Trees Go Up, Lights Stay Off
Beginning in 1942, real Christmas trees were in short supply, because many of the men who typically chopped them down were either in the military or working in the armament industry, the Chicago Daily Tribune reported. At the same time, labor costs and fees paid to landowners for tree-cutting rights both soared, driving up the retail price of live Christmas trees, and contributing to the popularity of artificial versions.
Though artificial Christmas trees had been both imported to and manufactured in the United States for decades at that point, this was when the faux firs really gained traction. Prior to the war, artificial Christmas trees made from goose feathers were the most popular variety. But after the U.S. stopped importing goods from Germany—including the feather trees—they were no longer available (or desirable). Instead, people opted for artificial Christmas trees made in America using visca (a type of artificial straw), or those from the UK-based Addis Housewares Company, which used their machinery for making toilet brushes to produce faux trees with similarly stiff bristles.
World War II also brought about changes to how Christmas trees were decorated. “The tradition of lighting a tree at this time of year has been around for a very long time,” Frese explains. “But you couldn’t have done that in parts of the United States during the war—especially on the coasts—because [there were times when] you had to blackout your windows.”
Though some cities, like Seattle, started blackout drills several months before the attack on Pearl Harbor, they became far more widespread in December 1941. During these drills, area residents practiced turning their lights off in order to make the town less visible to enemy planes from above, should an aerial invasion occur.
Different Menus at Dinner
For many people, sharing a special meal with family and friends is an integral part of celebrating the holidays. So, when the U.S. government began rationing various foods in 1942, households across the country had to rethink what they would serve for the occasion.
“A lot of the country gave up turkey so that they could ship more turkeys to service people overseas, or even at bases within the U.S.,” says Michael Green, associate professor of history at the University of Nevada, Las Vegas. “Some still were able to get their turkeys, or scrimped to make sure they had enough ration points and the like to get what they wanted.”
Sugar was the first food to be rationed during World War II, with butter added to the list the following year. For the most part, that didn’t stop people from baking Christmas desserts. Instead, home economists working for the U.S. Department of Agriculture, as well as various food manufacturers, developed new wartime recipes using ingredients that were cheap and widely available. Victory cakes, which used very little sugar (if any) were a popular option, as were gelatin-based desserts.
Letters, Packages to Troops Abroad
Most Americans serving overseas during World War II were appreciative of any mail they received from their loved ones—especially during the holidays. Understanding how much this boosted the troops’ morale, the United States Army and Navy Postal Services collected gifts, cards and other mail in September and October to ensure delivery by Christmas. In 1942, Hallmark reinforced this idea with a new advertising slogan: “keep ‘em happy with mail.”
When those on the homefront sent packages to their relatives and friends away at war, they often included clothing and “photos of [their] families, landmarks from their hometowns, and holiday celebrations,” Green explains. Even simple cards, letters, or other messages could be deeply meaningful for members of the military, the U.S. Postmaster General reported in 1942, noting that communication with their loved ones “strengthens fortitude, enlivens patriotism, [and] makes loneliness endurable.”
This sentiment was also reflected in the motto of the 6888th Central Postal Battalion: “No mail, low morale.” Nicknamed the “Six Triple-Eight,” the battalion was the only all-Black unit of the Women’s Army Corps (WAC) to be deployed overseas during World War II, and was responsible for millions of pieces of mail getting in the hands of U.S. soldiers for Christmas, as well throughout the rest of the year.
Japanese Americans in Prison Camps Keep Traditions
Star Trek actor George Takei was five years old when his family was incarcerated in a prison camp in 1942. Despite his parents’ reassurance that Santa would still pay him a visit, he was concerned that Mr. Claus wouldn’t be able to “make it through the barbed-wire fence," he told WNYC in a 2012 interview. But Takei’s parents were right: a Japanese-American Santa came bearing gifts.
Between 1942 and 1945, roughly 125,000 Japanese Americans were incarcerated by the U.S. government into isolated prison camps; half were children like Takei and his siblings. Participating in holiday traditions, including those for Christmas, was one way that people tried to maintain a sense of normalcy in their lives. For example, Japanese Americans decorated their mess halls using scrap materials, designed their own Christmas cards, and went caroling through the barracks.
Gift-Giving Centers on Simplicity and Sacrifice
The war also impacted the types of presents placed under the tree. “Families often exchanged fewer gifts among the adults to make sure the kids got their toys and other fun things,” says Green. But thanks to wartime rationing of commodities like metal, rubber, and rayon, many manufactured children’s toys and gifts were made of wood or paper.
Regardless of the age of the recipient, Frese says that it was common to both give and receive handmade presents during World War II.
“Knitting and crocheting really took off, and so did painting and all kinds of crafts,” she explains, noting that they were often created using repurposed materials and supplies. “If that’s all you have, that’s what you do.”
Gift-giving was also about sacrifice. “Some women would give up their own food rations so they could gift them to a friend,” says Frese. Meanwhile, the U.S. government encouraged Americans to make a patriotic sacrifice for the common good, and purchase war bonds for loved ones in lieu of traditional presents.
Holiday Songs Become Heavy on Nostalgia
Christmases during World War II had an underlying feeling of melancholy for both the Americans serving overseas, as well as those on the homefront with empty places at the dinner table. Some of the most somber holiday standards were released during this period: “White Christmas” (1941), “I’ll Be Home for Christmas” (1943), and “Have Yourself a Merry Little Christmas” (1944).
This trio of now-classic songs resonated with soldiers longing for home, and their loved ones who dreamt of Christmases like the ones they used to know. As Green says, “Referring to [being home for Christmas] ‘if only in my dreams’ captured a lot of what was happening."