Christmas Past

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!

35 comments

  1. I am SO envious of you, meeting Jane Brockett and Nicola Beauman. I own, and love, books by both of them! The visit to the Persephone Shop sounds like just the right sort of thing to be doing just now and you described it so well, I felt I was there! If only I really had been! And what an interesting museum! I’d like to have seen that, too. But envy is NOT the right kind of emotion for this time of year, so I’ll just be happy for you!🙂

    1. They are lovely people, Penny! I hope you’ll get to meet them too some day! And when you come to London you too will see the Geffrye. I shall take you!

      Hehehehe…don’t be silly!😉

  2. Jenny and I tried so hard to find this museum – the people at the Museum of London were urgent that we should not go there because the neighborhood was too dodgy. Now I’m both sad and happy…something left to do the NEXT time I’m in London! Merry Christmas, Rachel! I’m getting my Christmas fix by re-reading Robert and Elizabeth Barrett-Browning’s exchange of Christmas letters in 1845…

    1. Oh for goodness’ sake! You would have been just fine! Next time you must go – it’s so lovely! Thank you – merry Christmas to you too – enjoy having Jenny with you!!

    2. It’s such a lovely museum and not ‘dodgy’ at all. What a strange thing for the Museum of London people to say. Actually, I’d much sooner go to the Geffrye Museum than penetrate the hugely unappealing concrete wasteland of the Barbican.

    3. As a lifelong Hackney resident, I feel very cross that the Museum of London would say such a silly thing. The Geffrye is such a gem and I must make a visit this week to shake off my own ‘Bah, humbug!’ mentality.

  3. You went to Persephone on Thursday? I wish I had known and would have joined you but I thought you were I rush and was saddened that everyone had cancelled. Oh well; I’m glad it was festive and reminded you how lovely and unharried Christmas can be.

    I am a big fan of Christmas Past at the Geffrye Museum.

    1. I did, Claire, but I ran in at around 3pm as I had the afternoon off work for shopping. I was due in South Kensington at 6 so there was no way I could have made our post work meet up, and I needed to get Persephone books as Christmas presents, so I decided to go earlier. I’m so sorry we missed each other and everyone cancelled – but we can do it next year for definite!!

      Glad you are a fan too – it was really busy today actually so I think it might be a bit less of a hidden gem than I thought!

  4. What a beautifully described visit to the museum and the bookshop, Rachel. While reading this blog post just now, in my mind’s eye I was there, enjoying every moment. I know I’ve been out of the loop for a while, and I’ve missed reading and leaving comments in this, one of my favourite blogs, but I’m feeling a lot better now and am getting back on track. Have yourself a lovely Christmas, Rachel, and a happy, hopeful and bright and shine new year, as well.

    1. Thank you June – how lovely. I’m glad you’re feeling better – I think I owe you an email actually! I will get to that, sorry. I hope you have a wonderful Christmas and a fantastic New Year yourself June – thinking of you!

  5. Oops…just caught a typo (but not in time to fix it before I posted it)…should be ‘shiny’ new year, not ‘shine.’ But having said that, may your new year and all your blog’s fans have a new year that does indeed ‘shine.’

  6. Really enjoyed this virtual view of the museum. For all the crush in the shops I think there is a real move towards a simpler values Christmas this year. Hope you have a lovely day.

    1. Glad to hear it Sally! Yes, a ‘recession Christmas’ is something I have heard bandied about a lot this year – it’s certainly true in my house – newspaper paperchains are my only decorations!

      1. I think that making paperchains is one of the most relaxing activities in the world! My husband is a printer, so I raid his shelves for paper and have a chilled out hour or two adding link after link.

  7. I really enjoyed your visit to Christmas Past. This has been a lovely trip to Christmas of long ago. I am glad that you found your Christmas Spirit just in time.

  8. Dear Rachel

    Thank you for the pleasure of your company during 2011.

    I wish you a happy Christmas and a new Year full of love, luck and laughter.

    Cheers Sue

    1. Sue, how kind you are – thank you for being such a generous and enthusiastic reader of my blog – it means a lot to me.

      The same to you – I hope you have a wonderful time with your family.

  9. Ah, yes, the Museum of London lady put us off. We had also been wandering around lost for a while hunting for the Museum of London in the first place, and feeling discouraged, so we were easily put off, I’m afraid. I want to go back though! At regular times and at Christmas!

  10. I’m glad you got your Christmas spirit back, Rachel – yeah, the pre-holiday stuff really conspires to wear one down.
    Last year I read this – http://www.amazon.com/Man-Who-Invented-Christmas-Dickenss/dp/0307405788/ref=sr_1_9?s=books&ie=UTF8&qid=1324238163&sr=1-9
    a really interesting little book. The author suggests that Charles Dickens is the one who is responsible for making Christmas a bigger celebration, as you describe above. I enjoyed it, whether it’s true or not.

    Merry Christmas!

    1. Thanks Lisa! That book looks amazing – I have heard that turkey became popular because of A Christmas Carol and I’d love to read more!!

      Merry Christmas to you too!

  11. The Geffrye is one of those places I definitely want to visit during a trip over to London. The next time I get over will probably be next November so hopefully this exhibit will be on display!
    Oh Rachel, think of us poor deprived fans of Downton Abbey who will be reduced to total anxiety about whether or not to commit an illegal act of downloading in order to watch our beloved family and their staff at Christmas. I’ll be with you in spirit!

    1. You will love the Geffrye, Darlene! The exhibition starts at the end of November so time it just right and you’ll get to enjoy it yoo!

      Oh Darlene – you know what to do.😉 If you need help let me know!!!

  12. Ah, but you must know, dear Rachel, that I would adore this museum and this exhibit. What a treasure to see how the Commercial Christmas has grown. Even in my own childhood, it was a simpler season and, being raised Greek, Christmas day was a very big religious day. I always loved Christmas as a child, but, still CRINGE when I recall the aluminum tree my father brought home. That is a story for sure, so, I’ll stop, thank you for this wonderful post, and wish you and your the happiest and merriest of Christmases.

    1. I know you would love it Penny! It’s interesting how much Christmas has changed, and it does make me more than a little sad that commercialism has overtaken the true meaning of what always was a simple, family oriented day.

      An aluminium tree?! I’d love to see that!

      I hope you and your family have a wonderful Christmas together, Penny – I also hope you’ll get to spend it with your little Kezzie.

  13. How devil may care of you to attempt going in shops in December😉 I always forget just how manic it can be, although it’s a little bit quieter our way than usual (recession I guess) and at least there’s been no chance of getting trapped in the snow this year (why yes I was at the hairdressers during the biggest snowfall). Weren’t you in that terrifying car white out episode last year? Museums must seem heavenly after that.

    1. I know, I was simply mad!😉 Yes, at least there is no snow – that was a nightmare last year! But I have dined out on it many a time!😉 Hope you have a lovely Christmas, Jodie🙂

  14. This was a lovely post, Rachel. In the midst of the hustle and bustle of Christmas it’s good to shift gears and focus on the simple things that make the season so magical. The other night I read “A Christmas Memory” by Truman Capote, such a beautiful story, and a lovely way to spend half an hour, sitting quietly. Merry Christmas!
    Ps I have got “Revolutionary Road” waiting for me on Christmas Day!

    1. Thank you Caroline – I heartily agree. All the shopping and stress can start to overshadow things if we’re not careful! I hadn’t heard of that Capote story before, I shall have to check it out. Thank you for the recommendation!

      Oooh how exciting – you’ll love it! Have a wonderful Christmas!

  15. I really wanted to go to this but of course as yet haven’t- I’m going to check if I can fit it in on Saturday (I’m back at work now of course) I love the Geffrye

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