Think about Christmas dinner and you’ll likely conjure up a picture of a family affair centered on a large roast turkey. That’s certainly the traditional view of the yuletide meal. But as you’ll see from this gallery of 40 photos, while some things about Christmas dinners remain remarkably similar, others have changed considerably over the past century or so.
40. Birds to go
This early 20th century photo from London gets right to the heart of what Christmas dinner means to so many people – a roast bird. Sainsbury’s today is one of the U.K.’s biggest grocery store chains, still filling Christmas shopping baskets. But if you go into one of its modern stores, you’ll find that all the birds are neatly wrapped in plastic. Probably more hygienic if less visceral.
39. Free Christmas dinner
This shot from 1905 illustrates the fact that not everyone had the wherewithal to provide themselves with a lavish Christmas dinner. But luckily, in Denver, Colorado, at least, the Volunteers of America were there to fill the gap. And the charity is still going strong today. But does the turkey know what the future holds?
38. Salvation Army Christmas dinner
And five years later, when this photo was taken in 2010 in New York, there were obviously still those who didn’t have the price of a Christmas dinner. This time, it’s the Salvation Army Santa Claus who is stepping in to help people who are short of funds. Santa was apparently going to be serving Christmas dinner for 25,000.
37. A German WWI Christmas
This time we are in 1916 as the First World War rages on. We’re with a party of German soldiers who are actually cooking up a rabbit stew for their New Year’s dinner. The makeshift stove is something to behold. And it’s a pleasure to see the ingeniously improvised Christmas tree that the soldiers have erected.
36. A British WWI Christmas
Here we have a group of Royal Navy sailors celebrating Christmas 1918 aboard H.M.S. Mermaid in 1916. They’re using the Royal Navy flag, the White Ensign, as a tablecloth for their Christmas spread. Did the Admiralty know about this use of the flag, one can’t help asking?
35. Boy Scouts delivery service
Almost a century before meal delivery and the gig economy were born, these Boy Scouts were on a mission to deliver Christmas dinners. It’s 1918 in Cincinnati, Ohio, and plenty of people in that city and around the world had a lot to celebrate that Christmas. After all, November 1918 had seen the end of the First World War.
34. Christmas tea
It’s 1919, and it seems that these folks are sitting down to Christmas tea. We don’t actually know where this photo was taken, but if the tea is anything to go by it looks like we’re in the U.K. That’s a country where a cup of tea is on the menu no matter what time of year it is.
33. A merry equine Christmas
And why should the delights of Christmas dinner be reserved solely for the human species? The Washington Animal Rescue League clearly took this injustice to heart in 1923. And it went right ahead and tackled it by offering free Christmas dinners to horses. We can only speculate about what the horses made of it.
32. Feline festive?
If there’s one animal species that is definitely not a fan of Christmas dinner, it is of course the turkey. Fortunately the turkey in this 1925 photograph probably doesn’t know the inevitable fate that awaits it. What part the cat is going to play at Christmas dinner is a puzzle. Hopefully, it won’t be featuring as a menu item, unlike the turkey.
31. Stokers’ Christmas dinner
If ever anybody relished their Christmas dinner, it’s these two guys snapped in 1926. And we can forgive them for not having had time to fit in a wash before the meal. The pair were working as stokers aboard the S.S. Malines, a tough job indeed that involved shoveling coal for long hours in the ship’s belly. No wonder they’ve got an appetite. But it would probably be best if they cooked that turkey before eating it.
30. It’s not all turkey
Turkey might be a Christmas dinner favorite, but other birds are available – the goose for example. And here indeed is a large goose going on what was very probably its last journey in 1931. The pillion passenger looks to be in high spirits. The goose looks pensive, however, as well it might given its allotted role in the coming Christmas festivities.
29. A camp Christmas
This 1934 photo captures a group of unemployed men who have chosen to live communally at a time when the Great Depression had ravaged the British, not to mention the world’s, economy. But despite that, these young men at the Grith Fyrd Camp in England are clearly determined to celebrate Christmas in style. A traditional English Christmas pudding takes center stage.
28. Christmas on the farm
Somehow, these three soldiers have ended up enjoying their Christmas dinner in a barn. But it’s not just any old barn, it’s one with Christmas decorations. What the cow and her calf think about sharing their residence with three men chowing down on Christmas dinner remains unknowable.
27. Christmas at sea
This shot taken shortly before Christmas 1934 shows two portholes on the side of the ocean-going liner Viceroy of India. She’s about to set off from Tilbury Dock on the River Thames, downstream from London. You may have noticed that the photo also features the ship’s cook and his mate. We can only hope that they’ve got a firm grasp of those turkeys.
26. Christmas for the Kayan
These women with the painful-looking neck rings were from the Kayan people of Myanmar, or Burma as it was still called when this photo was taken in 1935. Their break for Christmas dinner comes as they toured around England as circus performers. In modern times, the practice of wearing the neck rings is dying out.
25. Christmas dinner on the railroad
It’s 1935, and these folks are enjoying a Christmas dinner as they travel through England by train on a London, Midland and Scottish train. Founded in 1921, this railroad company disappeared in 1948 when all railways in Britain were taken over by the government. The very name London, Midland and Scottish conjures up for many older Britons a time when rail travel was somehow more gracious, even glamorous.
24. Farmer’s Christmas in Iowa
It’s 1936, and here’s another photo that shows how tough times were for some during the 1930s. We’re at a tenant farmer’s home in the southeast of Iowa, and these children are happily tucking into a Christmas meal. With all the resilience and innocence of childhood, they’re seemingly oblivious to the stark poverty of their surroundings.
23. Christmas railroad repast
We’re back in Britain on another Christmas-time train service run by the London, Midland and Scottish Railway, this time in 1936. The railroad company has spared no effort to create an atmosphere of festive cheer with Christmas decorations, holly and mistletoe festooning the car. And the chef has even come out of his galley to serve the passengers their Christmas pudding.
22. A sporting Christmas
It’s never been a major sport in the U.K., but here we have an ice hockey goaltender posing in full kit with a turkey-bearing chef. And why are they doing this? Your guess is as good as ours. The goaltender is a member of London’s Earls Court Rangers team, an outfit that disappeared into the mists of sporting history in 1953.
21. Christmas with Hitler
It’s hard to wring any Christmas cheer out of this photo. Here is Adolf Hitler surrounded by a gruesome selection of his reptilian underlings. The photograph is taken in 1938 in Munich, just the year before the Nazi dictator unleashed six years of horror on the world, resulting in the deaths of millions. As we said, not a lot of Christmas spirit here.
20. Christmas pudding delight
And here we are in 1939, back with the human race and witnessing the sheer pleasure that a well-cooked traditional English Christmas pudding can give. This woman is a member of the Auxiliary Fire Service, whose members gave outstandingly courageous service during the Nazi bombing of Britain.
19. Christmas pudding trashcan
Here’s another 1939 shot, with the Second World War under way as U.K. soldiers from the Welch Regiment are apparently stirring something in a trashcan. In fact, it’s another old British tradition – the communal mixing of the Christmas pudding. And you’ll notice that one of the soldiers is pouring in a bottle of booze, a vital ingredient.
18. On guard at Christmas
It’s 1940, and these soldiers are grabbing Christmas dinner somewhere on the British coastline, all the while keeping a keen eye out for any signs of a German invasion force. At the time, the threat of a Nazi invasion of the U.K. was very real. Thankfully, Hitler never got round to it, preferring instead to attack Russia. Fortunately, that turned out to be Hitler’s big mistake.
17. Presents for prisoners
Many thousands of British soldiers had been captured by the Germans as they swept through Belgium and France in 1940. Christmas in a prisoner-of-war camp could hardly have been a joyous occasion. But the Red Cross did its best to make it bearable with special Christmas packages that were sent to the prison camps.
16. Down and out in London
It’s London in 1940, and here we see a dinner for 200 of London’s down-and-outs. As well as a good feed the men were given one shilling (about $3.50 today), a pack of smokes and one other item described as a “useful present.” What on earth could that have been?
15. Christmas dinner deer
One of the effects of the war in 1940 was a severe shortage of turkeys in Britain. But somebody had the bright idea of substituting the missing turkeys with venison from the Scottish Highlands. And here we see a herd of deer carcasses brought down from the Scottish Hebrides Islands to London’s Smithfield Market. Hopefully, all of this was kept secret from Santa’s sleigh deer team.
14. More Christmas pudding
And here we are again, now in 1941, mixing a gigantic Christmas pudding, this time in a vat rather than a trashcan. The history of British Christmas pudding is said to date back to medieval times. The pudding is made at least a month, and sometimes up to a year, before it’s due to be served. Ingredients can include dried fruit, spices, suet and molasses plus a hefty measure of booze.
13. Tank crew Christmas
Now it’s 1942, and this photo is giving us a flavor of what it was like to spend Christmas on the frontline during the Second World War. These British soldiers with their tank are somewhere in the deserts of Libya near the Mediterranean port of Bardia.
12. Buckingham Palace Christmas
Here we have a special Christmas dinner in 1942 organized by a veteran’s group, The Not Forgotten Association. And the venue for this yuletide meal is the principal British royal residence, Buckingham Palace. The Not Forgotten Association is still going strong today.
11. Christmas with the S.S.
Here’s another shot that’s hardly likely to spark Christmas cheer. These sorry specimens of humanity are S.S. personnel celebrating Christmas 1943. They all worked as guards at the notorious Neuengamme concentration camp in northern Germany. Nearly 43,000 people died at the camp. It’s perhaps of some comfort to learn that after the war many of the S.S. were imprisoned at Neuengamme.
10. Christmas dinner on a jeep
Here we see three G.I.s tucking into their Christmas dinner served on the hood of their jeep. It’s not clear where they were, but it’s a fair bet from the battle-hardened look of them that it wasn’t far from the frontline. Christmas dinner must have been a welcome break from the horrors of war.
9. 56 Christmas cakes
We’re back with the military again, but it’s 1948 now, and the Second World War is over. These cooks are working for Britain’s Royal Air Force making 56 Christmas cakes. The cakes are for RAF personnel unlucky enough to be in hospital over Christmas.
8. Canine Christmas
We saw the offer of free Christmas dinners for horses earlier. Now it’s canine Christmas treats. And we were at Buckingham Palace a few moments ago. Now we’re at another world-famous London spot, the Tower of London. Back in 1950, dogs that were patients with the Peoples Dispensary for Sick Animals charity plus their owners were treated to Christmas dinner by the Governor of the Tower of London.
7. Korean Christmas
It’s 1950, and many soldiers are now fighting the North Korean communists as they attempt to take over South Korea. This corporal is actually an Australian and he is chomping down on his portion of turkey, or what little is left of it, with evident relish.
6. Christmas in Kentucky
Moving on to 1955, we now find ourselves in the home of what looks like three generations of a homespun American family in Kentucky. Clearly, god-fearing folk, the family sits patiently around the table where Christmas dinner is waiting while they recite grace. How many of us observe this custom nowadays?
5. Carving the bird
Whether this family said grace before they descended on their turkey we do not know. The man, presumably the father of the house, looks like he’s taking his carving duties very seriously. He’s even tucked his tie into his shirt to avoid any sartorial mishaps. Sadly, though, it seems that the family of six in this 1955 photo only had five paper hats.
4. Yuletide elegance
Moving on to 1956, we come across this picture of mid-century elegance. The woman’s finely tailored and form-fitting dress epitomizes the style that fashionable Americans were wearing in that era. The bauble-adorned holly and the two-candled table decoration scream sophisticated Christmas chic.
3. Traditional Christmas dinner
We jump forward a decade now to 1965. There isn’t a great deal of evidence of the swinging ’60s in this photo, however. Although perhaps the young boy’s hair is a little longer than it might have been a few years earlier. But on the whole we have a heartwarming picture of an entirely traditional American Christmas. Nevertheless, no cultural norms have been harmed here.
2. Afghani Christmas
Next we take a bigger leap clean through to the 21st century. It’s 2001, and these G.I.s are taking their Christmas dinner at Bagram Air Force Base in the Afghani capital of Kabul. The U.S. had invaded Afghanistan just a couple of months earlier. Sad to say, but there will still be American troops eating their Christmas dinner in Afghanistan in 2018.
1. Christmas in Iraq
It’s 2003, and troops from the U.S. Army Fourth Infantry Division are enjoying a tented Christmas dinner in another distant theater of operations. This time, it’s the city of Samarra in Iraq. The U.S. had invaded Iraq earlier in the year, toppling the dictator Saddam Hussein. After months on the run, Saddam was captured just a couple of weeks before Christmas.