IWM London presents a 1940s Christmas

The Christmas holidays we experience today are a touch different to those our grandparents knew as children. Today, IWM London helps learn a little about the festive forties…

‘Tis the season to be jolly, but if the tree isn’t up, you have no idea what to buy the in-laws and baking hasn’t even made it onto your December ‘To Do’ List, then you’ll definitely be feeling the festive frazzle! Here at IWM London, part of Imperial War Museums, we’re taking a leaf straight out of the cookery books of the housewives of the 1940s. Through the bombs and blackouts, the making-do and the mending, their spirits did not waver and this was certainly true when it came to celebrating Christmas during wartime.



Recycling, reusing, saving, substituting and making your own – there are many stories of wonderful resourcefulness and imagination to ‘keep calm and carry on’ with Christmas in the face of adversity. Christmas traditions were kept alive with gusto – paper chains and decorations made of pipe cleaners and sweet wrappers, candlelit services in church cellars during the blackout, even a Christmas tree made from goose feathers! And, last but not least, the tradition of munching mince pies.

Believe us, a home-made mince pie (or two) can work wonders for bringing Christmas cheer into the snowstorm of seasonal preparations. You’ll have yummy treats to offer any guests (expected or unexpected) who pop round, there’ll be amazing Christmassy smells wafting around your home, kids will love helping out with the Christmas baking, you can put the decorations up while the mince pies are in the oven and, after all this, you will definitely feel the warm glow of the Christmas spirit!

The idea behind this wartime recipe for a delicious mince pie filling was that orchard fruit could be used as a replacement for suet. It’s taken from The Ministry of Food: Thrifty Wartime Ways to Feed your Family Todayby Jane Fearnley-Whittingstall (which incidentally would make a great Christmas present for the designated cook in your household).

Plumand Russet Mincemeat:

1kg plums (1lb 2oz) 250g (9oz)
finely grated zest and juice of 2-3 oranges (you need 200ml juice)
500g (1lb) russet apples, peeled, cored and chopped into 1cm cubes
200g (7oz) currants
200g (7oz) raisins
200g (7oz) sultanas
100g (3½ oz) orange marmalade
250g (9oz) Demerara sugar
½ teaspoon ground cloves
2 teaspoons ground ginger
½ nutmeg, grated
50ml (2fl oz) ginger wine or cordial (optional)
100g chopped walnuts
50ml (2fl oz) brandy or sloe gin

Method: Preheat the oven to 130ºC (250ºF). Wash the plums, halve and remove the stones, then put into a saucepan with the orange juice. Cook gently until tender, about 15 minutes. Blend to a purée in a liquidiser or push through a sieve. You should end up with about 700ml (1¾ pt) plum purée.

Put the purée into a large bowl and add all the other ingredients, except the brandy or gin. Mix thoroughly, then cover and leave to stand for 12 hours.

Put the mincemeat in a large baking dish and bake, uncovered, for 2-2½ hours. Stir in the brandy or gin, then spoon into warm, sterilised jars, making sure there aren’t any air pockets. Seal with a sterilised twist-on lid or a waxed paper disc and cellophane cover. Store in a dry, dark, cool place until Christmas. Use within 12 months.



So, mince pie in hand, let’s turn our attention to the art of making Christmas decorations. IWM’s very own Alex Hulme shows us how far some brown parcel paper and a bit of creativity will get you – tune into Wartime Tips for an Austerity Christmas .

For inspiration, visit IWM London to see our 1940s House all dressed up for Christmas before it closes on 2 January 2012. Snow has fallen overnight on the house, and inside, preparations for Christmas are being made and the scene is warm and inviting. Look around the cosy sitting room that has been bedecked with original garlands and baubles, and enjoy the scene of a traditional family Christmas. To find out more, visit The 1940s House: Decorated for Christmas (free admission).

The 1940s House is at the heart of our well-loved family exhibition The Children’s War, which closes on 2 January 2012.

You can view the short film for the 1940s house at Christmas here.

All images © IWM