Today I went to see the Christmas Past exhibition at The Geffrye Museum, which is one of London’s hidden gems. In trendy Hoxton, surrounded by council estates and blocks of new glass and steel flats, it is a rare survivor from the 18th century. Originally almshouses, the museum’s main building is a beautiful red brick U, set around a tree lined courtyard. The interior has been transformed into a series of period rooms, exploring the history of the middle class domestic interior from the 1600s to the present. From November to January, the period rooms are decorated for Christmas, and it really did surprise me to see how recent our modern ways of celebrating Christmas are.
In the 1600s and 1700s, Christmas was a low key celebration. Homes were decorated with natural greenery, music and song entertained family and friends, and a dinner of beef and plum pudding was served. During the Cromwell era, Christmas was cancelled altogether; decorations, feasting, songs and dancing were against the strict Puritanism observed by Cromwell and his supporters. Despite studying this period at school, I had not realised this was the case, and nor did I realise how minimalist Christmas was before the Victorian era. The period rooms did not look much different, despite their festive makeovers; little wreaths of greenery surrounded wall paintings and ran along mantles, and that was about it. The main feature of Christmas appeared to be the large, elaborate meals served, including a feast on Twelfth Night, which seems to be a celebration that has fallen by the wayside in the 21st century.
As soon as the rooms moved into the 19th century, however, a riot of colour erupted. A beautifully decorated Christmas tree, hung with glass baubles, paper flags and trinkets dominated the mid 19th century living room, and garlands of greenery and mistletoe looped around every surface. Christmas cards and presents were scattered throughout the room, as the Victorian way of celebration focused more on the exchanging of gifts than on feasting. It is commonly held that Prince Albert introduced the Christmas tree to Britain, but this is disputed by The Geffrye. They acknowledge that the widely circulated portrait of Queen Victoria, Prince Albert and their five children clustered around their Christmas tree in 1848 was the catalyst for the wholehearted adoption of the tradition by the British public, but claim that it was actually Queen Charlotte who first brought the Christmas tree to the British court during her husband George III’s reign.
Moving into the 20th century, Christmas did not differ much from the colourful Victorian interpretation. Christmas trees became a matter of course, though the real fir was soon replaced by a plastic version in many homes. Through demonstrating how we have decorated our homes for Christmas over four hundred years, the museum reveals how Christmas has changed from being a day of simple festivities centred around food to being a season of excess, where our homes are transformed into sparkly winter wonderlands, with piles of gifts and specially created foods.
This year I have found the lead up to Christmas quite stressful; fitting in Christmas shopping and the endless rounds of parties and drinks and dinners has made December a constant whirl of frantic activity, not to mention a financial burden. I was feeling a bit bah, humbug about it all this week until I went along to the Persephone Books shop on Thursday. I’d booked the afternoon off to go Christmas shopping, and after being bashed about in John Lewis and negotiating the crowds in Oxford Circus, I’d well and truly had enough. Walking into Persephone, however, I was reminded of why Christmas is so magical. The shop smelled of cinnamon and spice; it was warm, cosy and softly lit. Mince pies and mulled wine were flowing freely; strangers were chatting to one another; a lady was wrapping books in beautiful tissue paper in the corner – I felt like I had walked into a Dickensian scene of Christmas cheer. I had an absolutely lovely time chomping on delicious Konditor and Cook mince pies, drinking mulled wine and talking to the ever witty, warm, and inspiring Jane Brocket, as well as the wonderful Nicola Beauman and her friendly team of staff. By the time I left an hour later, my heart had been warmed and my spirit cheered. After all, Christmas is all about spending time with people we love and making the effort to spread good will, happiness and generosity to one another. Today’s little jolly to The Geffrye Museum also reminded me of that; for centuries families have been coming together in their homes at this time of year to eat, drink and be merry, whether they’re religious or not – and that is really what makes Christmas so special. It makes us get back to basics and really appreciate what’s important and worth valuing; not presents, not Quality Streets, and not the Eastenders Christmas Special (though I am wetting myself with excitement about the Downton Abbey Christmas Special, I can’t deny) – but our families and friends, and how lucky we are to have them in our lives. I’d rather have them than gifts any day!