What Was Christmas Like in the 1940s?

Updated on November 29, 2019
Allain Christmas profile image

I love Christmas and history, so I'm sharing what I learn about Christmas and its customs as they've changed over the decades and centuries.

Vintage Christmas advertisement from the 1940s
Vintage Christmas advertisement from the 1940s | Source

Have you ever wondered what your parents or grandparents experienced at Christmas time in the 1940s? In researching my parent's World War II years, I started focusing on this holiday. Only part of the decade was wartime, and after that, the military men came home.

Christmas in the 1940s was quite different from Christmas during the Great Depression of the previous decade. I've been combing through Newspapers.com, which I subscribe to in order to get access to digitized newspapers from the 1940s. I also draw from some of my family stories of the time. Join me in learning more about this time.

Boots was a popular comic strip in the 1940s. This one has a Christmas theme and shows a boy in a cowboy outfit with a gun (popular with kids at the time).
Boots was a popular comic strip in the 1940s. This one has a Christmas theme and shows a boy in a cowboy outfit with a gun (popular with kids at the time). | Source

What Toys Did Children Want?

It's fun reading the letters to Santa that were printed in the newspapers between 1940 and 1949. The advertisements from stores at that time also give you a good idea about what products were popular at the time.

Many of the requested toys in the newspaper letters were gender-specific. Boys asked for marbles, toy dump trucks, scooters and bicycles, toy trains, toy farm sets, and footballs. A 7-year-old asked for a BB gun while a 12-year-old requested a 22 rifle. Girls asked for dolls, doll buggies, rocking chairs, and play dishes. In general, children asked for coloring books, crayons, fruit, and nuts. Tinker Toys were a popular plaything of that time and continued to be a favorite for decades.

Christmas Morning 1949

Pearl Harbor and Christmas 1941

On December 7th, 1941, the U.S. fleet was attacked at Pearl Harbor. This launched the country into war with Japan. My aunt was a child at the time and remembers hearing the adults talking about the attack and listening to radio announcements on the news. She was so frightened by what was happening that she gathered up her kittens and crawled under the bed to hide.

She was too young to realize that the Japanese fighter planes would not be bombing in Kansas where she lived. Both adults and children must have had a tense Christmas that year as the United States geared up for war.

My aunt and her kitten
My aunt and her kitten | Source

Christmas for the Soldiers in Far Away Places

The troops in faraway places could not come home for Christmas. Even travel within the United States was difficult as trains were needed for transporting troops and war supplies so it was not easy for a soldier on leave to travel to see his family.

The military tried to make Christmas Day festive for the troops by providing a turkey dinner and the usual holiday trimmings, but this was not always possible for troops in the middle of combat zones.

The USO brought some performers and movie stars to put on a show for the troops in some areas. Bob Hope traveled to entertain the soldiers each Christmas, and you can see videos of that on YouTube.

Local residents around the country often invited soldiers from local training sites to join them for their holiday feasts. Despite these efforts, it must have been a lonely time for the young men far away from their families.

If you possibly can, please bring our daddy home for Christmas.

— Letter to Santa from a child
This advertisement was from printed on page 32 of The Daily Tribune in Wisconsin Rapids, Wisconsin, on Monday, Dec 24th, 1945.
This advertisement was from printed on page 32 of The Daily Tribune in Wisconsin Rapids, Wisconsin, on Monday, Dec 24th, 1945. | Source

My Mother's Experience of the Holidays During the War

My mother was eager to finish high school so she could contribute to the war effort. After taking some training, she took a job at Boeing Aircraft in Wichita, Kansas.

This meant renting a room in a boarding house, walking many blocks to catch the bus to the plant, learning new jobs there, working shift work, and being far away from her family. Sometimes, she was able to take a bus to see the family on a weekend.

She saved what she could from her paycheck as she planned to marry her sweetie once the war ended. He also was saving up for them to get a good start.

She did get some gifts for the family and her bus ticket to be with them for Christmas. After all these years, she doesn't remember what the gifts were, but she treasures the special time she got to spend with her parents and younger sister.

Photos From My Mother's WWII Experience

Click thumbnail to view full-size
Gail Lee McGhee worked at Boeing in Wichita during the war years. This was her work uniform. This is one of the boarding houses where my mother stayed while working at Boeing. This is a photo signed by the co-workers on my mother's crew at Boeing.Portrait of Gail Lee McGhee—1940sThis is a ration booklet from World War II. Some foods were limited as they were needed for the troops and also for refugees who were starving overseas.
Gail Lee McGhee worked at Boeing in Wichita during the war years. This was her work uniform.
Gail Lee McGhee worked at Boeing in Wichita during the war years. This was her work uniform. | Source
This is one of the boarding houses where my mother stayed while working at Boeing.
This is one of the boarding houses where my mother stayed while working at Boeing. | Source
This is a photo signed by the co-workers on my mother's crew at Boeing.
This is a photo signed by the co-workers on my mother's crew at Boeing. | Source
Portrait of Gail Lee McGhee—1940s
Portrait of Gail Lee McGhee—1940s | Source
This is a ration booklet from World War II. Some foods were limited as they were needed for the troops and also for refugees who were starving overseas.
This is a ration booklet from World War II. Some foods were limited as they were needed for the troops and also for refugees who were starving overseas. | Source

Popular Christmas Songs in the 1940s

  • Dean Martin: "Jingle Bells"
  • Gene Autry: "Up on the House Top"
  • Andrews Sisters & Guy Lombardo Orchestra: "Christmas Island "(1946)
  • Lena Horne: "What Are You Doing New Year's Eve?"
  • Gene Autry: "Here Comes Santa Claus"
  • Frank Sinatra: "Mistletoe and Holly"
  • Gene Autry: "If It Doesn't Snow on Christmas"
  • Gene Autry: "Freddie the Little Fir Tree"
  • Dean Martin: "Blue Christmas"
  • Louis Armstrong and Velma Middleton: "Baby, It's Cold Outside"
  • The Dispoto Sisters: "Whistling 'Neath the Mistletoe"

What a Typical 1940s Home Looked Like

Click thumbnail to view full-size
An example of ways a family entertained themselves in the 1940s. At Christmas time, they would gather around the piano to sing carols. A 1940s radio where the family heard news and listened to the President give updates on the progress of the war. A 1940s kitchen on display at the WWII museum in Wolfboro, New Hampshire.A 1940s living room at the WWII museum.
An example of ways a family entertained themselves in the 1940s. At Christmas time, they would gather around the piano to sing carols.
An example of ways a family entertained themselves in the 1940s. At Christmas time, they would gather around the piano to sing carols. | Source
A 1940s radio where the family heard news and listened to the President give updates on the progress of the war.
A 1940s radio where the family heard news and listened to the President give updates on the progress of the war. | Source
A 1940s kitchen on display at the WWII museum in Wolfboro, New Hampshire.
A 1940s kitchen on display at the WWII museum in Wolfboro, New Hampshire. | Source
A 1940s living room at the WWII museum.
A 1940s living room at the WWII museum. | Source

Christmas Movies in the 1940s

Most of us can name the big 1940s films that featured a Christmas theme (Holiday Inn, It's a Wonderful Life, and Miracle on 34th Street). These get replayed every December, and it's fun to watch the old favorites once again with such stars as Jimmy Stewart, Bing Crosby, Fred Astair, and Ginger Rogers. Families did not have televisions, but many did go to the movie theaters regularly.

Here are some lesser-known 1940w Christmas titles that you can seek out:

  • The Shop Around the Corner—1940
  • Remember the Night—1940
  • Beyond Tomorrow—1940
  • I’ll Be Seeing You—1944
  • Christmas in Connecticut —1945
  • It’s a Wonderful Life—1946
  • It Happened on Fifth Avenue—1947
  • The Bishop’s Wife—1947
  • Holiday Affair—1949

This content is accurate and true to the best of the author’s knowledge and is not meant to substitute for formal and individualized advice from a qualified professional.

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    © 2019 Virginia Allain

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