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.
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.