Christmas During World War I

Moments of Peace in a Time of War
Large group of white men in military uniform gathered around an expansive table filled with food and utensils. There is a Christmas tree in the background.

Christmas observances occurred throughout World War I, even on the battlefield.

Likely the best known incident would be the “Christmas Truce” - a spontaneous truce on Christmas Eve 1914 which happened along parts of the Western and—to a much smaller extent—Eastern Fronts.

There were numerous eyewitness accounts, retold in letters:

“On Christmas Eve (1914) there was a lull in the fighting. The Germans had a Christmas tree in the trenches,” Wrote gunner Herbert Smith, 5th Battery, British Royal Field Artillery. An unidentified German soldier later wrote in a letter home, “Christmas 1914 – Suddenly a man from my company reported: ‘The English are letting off fireworks.’ And sure enough across the way from us the enemy trenches were lit up with fires and rockets and so on. We then made up a few banners reading ‘Happy Christmas!’ with a couple of candles behind and a couple on top.”

And from a Belgian soldier, “At midnight a baritone stood up and in a rich resonant voice sang, ‘Minuit, Chretiens.’ The cannonade ceased and when the hymn finished applause broke out from our side and from the German trenches!”

Learn more about this incident in the Museum’s digital exhibition, The Christmas Truce, Winter 1914


Though no sources show similar spontaneous truces occurring after 1914, celebration around holidays remained. On Christmas evening 1915, German soldier Ernst Bergner of the 143rd Infantry Regiment recalled looking for a Christmas tree for “without a tree there is no Christmas. It’s a wonderful winter day, there is a rare silence over the Front.”

Black and white photograph of three German soldiers. Two are seated on either side of a small table with a small Christmas tree on it. The third man is standing by the table looking at a sheet of paper.
German Postcard, caption reads “Weihnachten in Feindesland” (Christmas in Enemy Territory.)

C.H. Williams of the Oxfordshire and Buckinghamshire Light Infantry, British Army described his Christmas dinner of 1916 in an old sewing machine factory in Albert, France on the Somme lines. They “had beer for our dinner—plenty of it—and a good tuck-in to go with it! Roast pork! Beautiful after bully beef!”

1918 Base Hospital No. 202 Christmas Menu from Orleans, France. The menu includes information about Breakfast, Dinner, and Supper. The Statue of Liberty is printed on the left side.
Menu from the American Expeditionary Forces 1918 Christmas meal at Base Hospital 202 in France.

But of course, the Christmas spirit during the war reached beyond the battlefield.

Black and white photograph of a large crowd of children with a man dressed as Santa Claus in the middle.
Don R. Guthrie, Y.M.C.A. worker, entertaining French children in his Santa Claus outfit (without the mask.)

More than 35,000 individuals served in the Y.M.C.A. entertainment operations at home and abroad. Don Guthrie was one of these Y.M.C.A. workers, and his Santa costume now resides at the Museum. The outfit—made up of a painted paper mask, wispy cotton beard, and a red cloth cap, coat, pants, cape and belt with matching gift bag—may have seen better days, but its age and wear show its well-loved history.

An interesting detail: the costume’s Santa mask, made before 1914, is stamped Made in Germany, one of many small ironies of the conflict.

Photograph of a Santa Claus costume on a mannequin including a painted paper mask.
Santa Claus outfit worn by Y.M.C.A. worker Don R. Guthrie, on display in past holiday seasons in the Museum’s Main Gallery.
Image: Print of a WWI-era biplane scattering Christmas cards. Text: Here's Christmas Cheer for All the Year 1918-19.
A soldier’s Christmas postcard from 1918.

During the Allied occupation of Germany following the Armistice, American troops in Coblenz raised a Christmas tree in front of the Government building. Placing long strands of lights on the pine tree, it soon lit up the area after dusk. As music enveloped the large crowd of soldiers and German civilians, a festive air was made more so when the children received paper trumpets and other goodies pulled from soldiers’ pockets. For the first time in years, the windows of the Government palace were also lit and a lighted cross placed on top of the building.

A soldier, Sergeant 1st Class Charles Stevenson from Olathe, Kansas, wrote about that Christmas in Germany: “Just a few feet from me are members of a typical German family, throwing up a tiny Christmas tree, decorating it thoroughly in accordance with all respect due to the famed Christmas tree.”

Want to learn more? Go in depth and explore wartime celebrations of the holidays through the Museum’s Online Collections Database, where you can view photographs, letters, posters, and more primary documents from the war.