Christmas

What Is Operation Christmas Box?

A tradition that started over a century ago ... but how does it work?

There is no better feeling than sending and receiving gifts from loved ones during Christmas time, especially while being deployed abroad away from family and friends.

For military personnel, opening a morale-boosting gift box on Christmas Day - even if only for a moment - takes them away from their current predicament and provides them with a little taste of home. 

Over the decades, and as society has changed, the contents of the Christmas tin has evolved too.

The initial idea to provide tins for military personnel away from home at Christmas was by Princess Mary – the 17-year-old daughter of King George V.

In 1914, the young Princess initially attempted to pay for the Christmas tins - destined for those on the front line in Northern France - out of her own funds. Still, due to the costs involved, her plans to provide so many boxes were deemed impractical.

Princess Mary's original Christmas Tin, sent to troops in France in 1914. Credit: IWM

Not deterred, she raised funds through the national press by putting an advert out. 

Troops on operations in the Middle East enjoying Christmas Day. Credit: MOD

Enough money was quickly raised to produce enough tins for the thousands of troops fighting in World War One. 

The Princess managed to raise over £160,000 - mostly donated by members of the public from all parts of Britain.

In a letter released by Buckingham Palace, the Princess wrote:

“I want you now to help me to send a Christmas present from the whole of the nation to every sailor afloat and every soldier at the front. I am sure that we should all be happier to feel that we had helped to send our little token of love and sympathy on Christmas morning, something that would be useful and of permanent value, and the making of which may be the means of providing employment in trades adversely affected by the war. Could there be anything more likely to hearten them in their struggle than a present received straight from home on Christmas Day? Please will you help me?”

Because of the Princess’s successful campaign, and the vast amount of money raised, the recipients of Christmas boxes were expanded to all those serving at home or abroad.

This also included prisoners of war and the next of kin of those injured during the fighting.

However, on the battlefields of France, supplies of equipment and ammunition were seen as a higher priority. This meant many soldiers did not receive their tins until Christmas 1916, and others had to wait until the war had ended.

In total over 2.6 million Christmas tins were eventually manufactured and sent across the world to those who were eligible.

Christmas troops on operations. MOD

What Items Were Contained In The Princess Mary Gift Fund Box?

Most tins contained a mixture of chocolates, cigarettes or tobacco, a smoking pipe, lemon drops, a signed Christmas card and writing materials (as writing materials were scarce). Paper and pencils were added to the tins so that personnel were able to write home to their loved ones.

For non-smokers and boys, they received a tin containing no cigarettes. Instead, they had been replaced with boiled sweets.

How Have Christmas Tins Changed Over The Years?

Now with a better understanding of the dangers of smoking, tins no longer contain cigarettes or tobacco products. Due to the more recent conflicts being fought in hot environments, the sending of chocolates has also stopped, for obvious reasons. 

Nowadays, the boxes contain items such as playing cards, torches, Christmas hats, games and other useful things.

To coincide with the Diamond Jubilee in 2012, British Armed Forces personnel serving in Iraq and Afghanistan received a tin from London's upmarket department store Fortnum and Mason. These unique one-off tins contained posh tea and biscuits.

These tins were also made available to the public but quickly sold out.

A Santa with the rank of WO1 hands gifts to troops away from home. Credit: MOD

Who Sends Christmas Tins To Troops Now?

Inspired by the work of Princess Mary more than a hundred years ago, Operation Christmas Box has been responsible for sending Christmas boxes to UK Armed Forces personnel serving overseas since 2004.

They are a small team of four and rely on generous donations made by members of the public and their sponsors.

When warfighting operations were ongoing in Iraq and Afghanistan, 24,500 gift boxes were produced and distributed annually. Since the charity began, they have provided more than a quarter of a million tins for troops to open on Christmas Day.

The festive cheer among troops abroad. Credit: MOD

Operation Christmas Box 2019

Every year, the contents of these boxes change. What is inside them is a highly guarded secret – only revealed upon their opening on Christmas day.

In 2019, Operation Christmas Box received high praise from the Secretary of State for Defence, The Right Honourable Ben Wallace MP. In a letter to the charity, Mr Wallace paid tribute to the work the charity had done to improve the Christmases of those on operations around the world. 

 

Find out more about Operation Christmas Box, including information on how to donate, at: https://operationchristmasbox.org