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The holiday season during World War II brought sadness hand-in-hand with joy, as husbands and fathers were oceans away instead of warming seats at the dinner table. Those years also brought a return to simplicity, forcing resourcefulness in response to rationing and a focus on intangibles where the usual luxuries were lacking. Some found that the shift in celebration, though brought on for unfortunate reasons, turned out to be a happy change.
As LIFE explained in 1942:
Since “children are masters of sincerity and simplicity,” the magazine declared, photographer Nina Leen was dispatched to photograph them making their own Christmas cards, fashioning substitute trees from the cardboard in men’s t-shirt packages and crafting angels from acorns and pipe cleaners. There may not have been enough presents to cover the ground beneath a tree, but there were enough to fill a stocking, and—at least for the time being—that would suffice.
Liz Ronk, who edited this gallery, is the Photo Editor for LIFE.com. Follow her on Twitter @lizabethronk.