Christmas during wartime

Christmas during wartime

Matilda Dray 21 December 2020

Have you ever wondered what the festive season was like for those at war?

When we think of Christmas, we think of gatherings with family, scoffing delicious food and exchanging gifts with our loved ones. But what was Christmas like for our veterans and their families?

Let’s take a look back at how the festive season was celebrated over Australia’s wartime years.

Photos courtesy of the Australian War Memorial and the State Library of Queensland.

BOER WAR – 1899-1902

This Christmas pudding is 119 years old and is thought to be one of the oldest Christmas puddings in the world. It was given to 106 Trooper Thomas Ashford of 2 New South Wales Mounted Rifles during his service in the Boer War in South Africa for Christmas during 1901. Ashford returned to Australia in 1902 and the pudding was donated to the Australian War Memorial shortly before his death in the 1950s.

WORLD WAR 1 – 1914-18

The Alexandra Club, a private club for women based in Melbourne, instigated a program providing billies to private citizens in Australia to fill with gifts for soldiers at Gallipoli. By September 1915, almost 20,000 had been distributed, according to The Argus newspaper. This photo was taken by Thomas Sydney Harrison in 1915. (AWM: P09871.001)

Members of the 1st Australian Divisional Signal Company opening Christmas billies soon after the evacuation from Gallipoli. December 1915. (AWM: P02367.002)


Sergeant Cecil Robert Christmas of the 5th Field Ambulance used this hard tack biscuit as a postcard home. In barely discernible writing in graphite pencil or black ink, are the words "M[erry] Christ[mas] ... Prosperous New Y[ear] from old friends Anzac Gallipoli 1915".

Christmas in Egypt 1915

Cairo, Egypt. December 1915. Nine members of the 20th Australian Army Service Corps (AASC) get into the Christmas Spirit. (AWM: P00037.033)


These cardboard gift boxes were issued by the Australian Red Cross Society. Wattle is pictured on the lid, with a map of Australia on the side with a large cross at its centre and the words 'Greetings from The Australian Red Cross Society XMAS 1918'. This one was collected by John Patrick Kelly, a labourer from Murphy's Creek in Victoria. During the evacuation of Gallipoli in December 1915, Kelly was one of 16 men chosen to remain behind to hold the right flank of Lone Pine. (AWM: REL32657)

A drunken soldier, holding a bottle in one hand and another tucked into the pocket of his coat, stands in the back of a cart while appearing to conjure four balloons in front of him with a stick held in his other hand. The original caption reads `This chap is not giving a recruiting speech. Had a little too much on Xmas day. He landed back from Cairo in the mail waggon with balloons tied all round the waggon, but, as soon as the boys saw them, they took him down for them leaving him only the ones you can see here.' Heliopolis, Egypt. 25 December 1915. (AWM: P00037.004)

A group of members of 4th Australian field ambulance displaying their Christmas billies, sent as comforts from Australia. The contents apparently included a pipe as well as foodstuffs. The men are wearing the lids on their heads. Greece: Aegean Islands, Lemnos. January 1916. (AWM: P01116.024)

Embroidered silk postcards were extremely popular with soldiers during WWI and thousands were sent home to mothers, wives, children and sweethearts. The cards carried a range of motifs or patriotic themes and were hand-embroidered by French and Belgian women. This card was made in France in 1917 and features Santa Claus carrying a Christmas tree and a bag of toys. (AWM: SC00945)

A group of Australian soldiers with the Christmas lunch laid out on a makeshift table in 1915. The negative for this photo was one of 89 found in a "Welcome Nugget" tobacco tin on the body of Gunner Maurice Charles Thompson, who served in Egypt, Belgium and France. He took his photographs using a Kodak Vest Pocket Autographic camera but died in France on April 29, 1918. (AWM: P05991.008)


Christmas cakes shipped to London by Australian Red Cross workers as presents for Australian troops serving in France. Christmas 1918. (AWM: A04848)

Staff and patients at No. 4 Ward, No. 14 Australian General Hospital in Egypt decorated for Christmas. In the background tables are set for Christmas dinner. Streamers hang from light cords. 25 December 1918. (AWM: B00682)


WORLD WAR 2 – 1939-45

During December 1940, Santa Claus helped bring joy to young Brisbane residents by making appearances at hospitals, fetes, stores and events. He is pictured here on December 15 at the Red Cross Fete at Government House, Paddington. When he visited children’s hospitals, he distributed presents and went from ward to ward to see those too ill to be moved from their beds. A special meal of turkey, plum pudding and Christmas cake was served to celebrate Santa’s visit. Photo courtesy of John Oxley Library, State Library of Queensland. Neg 193132


Trainees of the Women’s Auxiliary Australian Air Force (WAAAF) hanging up newly boiled Christmas puddings. December 1942. (AWM: 137392)

Troops of the 9th Infantry Battalion enjoy a traditional Christmas lunch on the island of Bougainville, 1944. On the menu was soup, turkey, ham, roast potatoes, peas, Christmas pudding, custard and beer. (AWM: 077714)


VIETNAM WAR – 1962-75


The top of an armoured personnel carrier served as a Christmas sleigh for these two troopers from B Squadron, 3rd Cavalry Regiment when they opened their Christmas parcel from the Australian Forces Overseas Fund to the 1st Australian Task Force (1ATF). Bare-chested Trooper (Tpr) Ian Johnston of Maroubra, NSW (left) and Tpr Graham (Shorty) Maycock of Neutral Bay, NSW, examine some of the goods in the box. Nui Dat, South Vietnam. December 1969. (AWM: WAR/70/0009/VN)


GULF WAR – 1990-91

Christmas carols in the cafe of HMAS Sydney. Petty officer marine technical hull (shipwright) John Scarfe dressed as Santa Claus leads the singing while others holding candles join in. (donor J. Scarfe). Persian Gulf. 24 December 1990. (AWM: P01524.004)


EAST TIMOR – 1999-2013

Members of Bardot perform at the "Tour de Force" Christmas concert held for troops several days before Christmas. This image relates to the service of the United Nations Headquarters Peacekeeping Force (HQPKF), United Nations Transitional Authority in East Timor (UNTAET). 18 December 2000. (AWM: P09937.016)

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