Blues and Royals Lance Corporals by Royal Hospital Chelsea Christmas Tree

Armed Forces At Christmas: Traditions Then And Now

There are a number of Christmas traditions developed by the military over the years.

Blues and Royals Lance Corporals by Royal Hospital Chelsea Christmas Tree

Many servicemen and women spend the festive season away from the UK each year.

This year alone, 11,000 sailors, soldiers, airmen and Royal Marines will spend Christmas and New Year's on deployment, far from their loved ones.

However, spending those days in a rather non-traditional way can be unique and special in its own way.

We take a look at activities that have become traditions for the British Armed Forces serving personnel deployed over the winter holidays.

Christmas Now

Morning Cuppa

There is nothing unusual about starting the day with a nice, warm cup of tea. However, if you are part of the British Army, the much-loved beverage has a festive twist on Christmas Day.

Members of the Army have been known to enjoy a cup of gunfire - black tea with a shot of rum in it.

The origin of the drink is unknown, but it is believed to date back to the 1890s.

Nowadays, different regiments have different traditions on how gunfire is made, but one thing stays the same - it is generally served by officers to soldiers while they are still in bed.

Taste Of Home

Troops deployed over the festive season are on duty also on Christmas Day, but that does not mean they cannot have a taste of home.

The services make an effort to ensure serving personnel who will not be in the UK for the holidays can still enjoy the iconic Christmas dinner.

While it will most likely be a variation of their families' traditional recipes for the best roast potatoes and stuffing, serving personnel will sit down together and enjoy a meal in the company of the men and women they serve with.

As a tradition in the Army, officers will often serve soldiers.

A carol service in Camp Bastion Afghanistan during Christmas 2011 221211 CREDIT MOD_0.jpg
A carol service in Camp Bastion Afghanistan during Christmas 2011 (Picture: MOD).

Carol Services

Serving personnel from the Armed Forces have found themselves singing traditional Christmas carols in the most unconventional places.

Often, carol services are accompanied by personnel wearing Christmas jumpers, presents being exchanged, and sometimes even a visit from Santa himself.

Christmas During World War One

During the First World War, the international landscape was altered. Both serving personnel and civilians had their lives completely changed, with traditions being put on hold even at Christmas time, and new ones emerging.

The efforts of the British Army, Royal Air Force and Royal Navy were crucial to the British population, and the significance of this was seen even in Christmas toys that were given to children during the war.

Toy soldiers, guns and military items were popular choices for young boys as presents during the First World War.

In the trenches, too, Christmas time was marked in unique ways.

Christmas Parcels

Technology was extremely different during the Great War. This meant that the best, and often only, way to keep in touch with loved ones was with letters.

During the course of the conflict, billions of letters and millions of parcels were delivered to the front.

Christmas time was a particularly busy time for men serving the British Armed Forces to receive parcels all the way back fro the UK.

Postmen delivering postal items were dubbed 'Santa Claus in khaki'.

The parcels usually included food, clothes, and cigarettes.

Other things that seemed particularly popular during those days were footballs, small musical instruments, and Christmas puddings.

Christmas Mail RAF Akrotiri 271218 CREDIT BFBS_1.jpg
Mail delivery services in the British Armed Forces continue to be busy around Chrtistmas.


Cigarettes were popular during the First World War as the side effects of smoking were not fully discovered until the 1940s and 1950s.

Family members often mailed cigarettes to men serving in the trenches and around the world, as well as even a royal initiative supporting the habit.

In 1914, Princess Mary launched a charitable Christmas initiative aimed at sending a metal case of cigarettes to every soldier in the Army.

Christmas Truce... And Football

Christmas in 1914 went down in military history as one of the most unique.

While no official record exists of it, diaries, photos and tales told by veterans suggest there was an unofficial truce during Christmas that year.

The truce, held between British and German soldiers in the trenches, allegedly saw soldiers from the two different armies exchange gifts, food and play a famous Christmas Day football match in no-man's land between the trenches. 

In 2014, to mark the 100th anniversary of the unconfirmed truce, British and German soldiers deployed in Afghanistan had a commemorative football game in a dusty field.

World War One German and British troops on Christmas Day 1914 25121914 CREDIT PA_0.jpg
A photo taken on Christmas Day 1914 depicting German and British soldiers together, suggesting the unofficial truce did indeed happen (Picture: PA).

Formal Christmas In The Navy

Christmas as serving personnel in the Navy was much different from the kind of Christmas land personnel experienced during the First World War.

Christmas in the Navy came with its own traditions, meaning formality was kept at all times.

The day would start with a religious service followed by a Christmas meal at their tables.

Personnel would also visit and take turns to sit at the various tables and sample food.

(Cover image: MOD).