Xmas Past & Xmas Presents: 400 Years of Xmas Tradition at the Geffrye Museum

“I think there are more people in this store than there are in the whole of Canada”

6pm. 23rd December. Just two shopping days to go until Christmas and I still haven’t bought a single present. I’m clearly not the only one who’s left it all to the last minute. My Canadian friend wasn’t exaggerating – the World and his Wife really are in John Lewis. Not that it makes me feel any better, any more than the walls of novelty gifts screaming at me to “Keep Calm”. Back in 1647, the Puritans tried to ban Christmas. Right now, life would be a lot easier if they’d succeeded.

They reckon us Brits will spend a staggering £22.3bn this year on Christmas. If Christmas UK were a country, it’d be about the same size as Bahrain and they’re a member of OPEC. Probably a lesson in there somewhere. Want to survive Christmas? Shop early, spend hard, strike oil.

It’s easy to assume the commercialisation of Christmas is something recent, but in reality, we’ve been over-indulging at Xmas for at least 150 years. Records from 1868 show Lord Braybrooke and his family enjoyed no less than 10 courses for Christmas lunch, polishing off (amongst others) 34 rabbits, 18 partridges and 2 ducks. Even a basic Christmas lunch of goose, pudding and stuffing would cost an ordinary man a week’s wages.

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We also have the Victorians to thank for other essential elements of Christmas. The printed Christmas card first appeared in 1843 (the brainchild of Sir Henry Cole who’d grown tired of hand-writing seasonal notes to numerous friends and colleagues), the Christmas cracker in 1848. As for the Christmas tree – The idea of decorating fir trees had been around in Germany for many years, but it wasn’t until the 1840s and Victoria & Albert’s enthusiasm for the custom that the English practice really caught on.

Of course, it was this fascination with Christmas Past which had got me into trouble now with Christmas present(s). It was all going so well. I’d booked a day off work last week. I was all set to go Christmas shopping. Then I heard about the Christmas exhibition at the Geffrye Museum. It sounded so much more appealing than battling crowds and battering credit cards on Oxford Street. Off to Hoxton I went instead. What can I say? Christmas has always been a time of giving in to temptation.

The Geffrye Museum is London’s Museum of the Home. Located in the magnificent 18th Century almshouses built at the bequest of Sir Robert Geffrye (a former Lord Mayor of London), it explores how the typical English middle-class home has evolved over the years. Like many of London’s best-kept secrets, it’s free to enter so there’s no excuse not to visit the café. Even if you’ve no interest in domestic design, its smoked salmon bagels are sensational – not to be missed.

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Every year, the museum plays host to its annual Christmas exhibition. All the period rooms are authentically decorated, each recreating seasonal festivities from a different period of history. You squeeze through the museum’s wormhole corridors suddenly to emerge in another moment and another time – from a 17th Century hall to the self-conscious style of a modern day loft.

For all this, what struck me the most during my visit wasn’t how much Christmas had changed, but how little. A speed dating session with 400 years of history and I’d met fabrics and furnishings in every shape, colour and style but Christmas? Maybe three types at most: The feasting and frivolity of the 1600s with their semi-pagan undertones; the neglect of the 18th Century; the Victorian revival. Look in on a late 19th Century drawing room and most of the elements of a modern Christmas are recognisable but even in a 1630s hall, the decorative holly is comfortably familiar.

I never really understood how much I appreciated the stability of Christmas until one year when it was all change. Christmas in transit through South East Asia : Shops open, sunshine, not a Brussels sprout in sight (ok, so maybe it wasn’t all bad!). I missed all our silly family traditions more than words could say. There’s so little in modern life that’s reassuring and routine. How many other customs have just fallen by the wayside? It’s easy to criticize the commercialization of Christmas, but it has at least helped to keep it on the map, to make it a constant. Would I really make the same time for giving and sharing, food family and friends without the pressure of collective expectation?

Cards, crackers and the pudding no one eats. Leaving it all last minute again. Socks, family squabbles and snow (lack of): Some things about Christmas never change, but you know what, that’s just the way I like it.

Do need to shop earlier next year though!

Merry Christmas x

It’s Good to Talk: The London Lecture Scene

I’ve become a Skeptic. I don’t meant that healthy dose of cynicism most Londoners need to survive the finer points of life in the capital – £5 a pint, rush hour congestion, the latest over-hyped restaurant opening – but London Skeptics In The Pub, the award winning lecture group.

Once a month, a load of enthusiasts get together in The Monarch, Camden, to discuss everything from politics to philosophy, history to science. An expert speaker presents on a chosen topic and then it’s opened up to the floor for discussion. Right from the first, I was hooked: it’s thought provoking, good-natured and charmingly chaotic, especially towards the end when everyone’s had a few / few too many. No surprises then that it’s also almost always packed (if you go along, make sure to get there early – it’s first come, first serve). Given your average undergraduate’s attendance record at lectures, Universities across the country could learn a thing or two from these guys.

Guest presenter Richard Firth-Godbehere takes a break from discussions during an interval at London Skeptics In The Pub

Talks and lectures are fast becoming one of my favourite forms of entertainment. Living and working back in London has brought with it a rediscovered pleasure in midweek nights out: None of the military precision planning that coloured life in the country (the joys of rural public transport and no connections between home and work), just walk straight out into a world of social possibilities.

Of course, being a school night, it’s not exactly carte blanche. Anything too late or too boozy – well, it’s doable, but it definitely makes for a difficult next day in the office; and there’s no point in blowing the entire budget before you’ve even got to the weekend. Talks are perfect not least because they’re so inexpensive: London Skeptics is a mere £5 a pop and even tickets to the Southbank rarely cost more than a tenner in spite of the higher-profile line up. Often, however, there’s no charge at all: Gresham College in Holborn, for example, provides hundreds of free public lectures a year on everything from ‘Hawaiian Religion & Dance’ to ‘Criminal Minds’.

In other words, there’s plenty of spare change to round off the evening with a drink or a meal – Both of which are perfectly possible given most talks are done and dusted by 9pm at the latest. No need for world speed eating records inhaling packets of crisps during the interval nor risk of death by dodgy kebab after the show’s finished.

Naturally, it helps if the lecture itself is worth listening to. Inevitably, some are better than others but on the whole, I’ve rarely been disappointed. Most speakers aren’t there out of obligation but for sheer love of their subject and that enthusiasm is infectious, no matter what. So often the talks I’ve enjoyed the most are on the subjects about which I’ve known the least – David Eagleman on the science of the subconscious brain or Pete Goss on sailing solo around the world (and for someone who doesn’t do boats and gets seasick on the Thames, that’s saying something!)

Miss the point of a movie and the director’s hardly going to be on hand to explain himself. Still think that modern art masterpiece is just a stuffed sheep: How can you argue the toss with the gallery (unless of course you go along to one of their free lectures! Try the National Gallery’s lunchtime series)? A talk, however, is an interactive experience. You can question or clarify or get to see something in a completely different light thanks to comments from the audience. It’s the ultimate in user-generated content, a reminder of a time when it was all about conversation not elements in a conversational media strategy.

no wifi

But let’s suppose you do get stuck in a less than stimulating session: What then? I’d be lying if I said it never happens (you’d be surprised at how dull some celebrities can be – so much so I now actively avoid “Evenings With” on principle). Fortunately, talks quite often have unusual or “off-limits” homes. The whole premise of The Lost Lectures is to be as much about the location as the lecture : They’ve hosted events at secret locations all over the capital including a lighthouse and an East London Boxing Hall. Equally, Barts Pathology Museum has an intermittent programme of seminars which includes a rare opportunity to see this Grade II listed site and its 5000 specimens.

The growing ranks of the London lecture scene prove what everyone in business has long since known : The best discussions don’t happen in the boardroom, but the bar.

Or should that be the museum and the boxing ring?

For a comprehensive list of talks and lectures in London, see www.talksandlectures.com

No Place Like Home

Travel supposedly broadens the mind. Well, I learnt three important things this holiday. First, be careful what you wish for: We were off to Death Valley and I’d joked about how cool it would be if it rained. Second: the novelty of rain in the hottest, driest place on earth wears off remarkably quickly. And third, no one can really do solid rain quite like us Brits. I actually found myself missing a good old English downpour.

Strange thing homesickness. Every trip abroad brings with it a familiar ache of longing – for friends, for loved ones, for decent cups of tea (what is it with the whole teabag-on-the-side overseas thing??) – but it’s always the unexpected items which trigger the sharpest pangs. I’ve dreamt of polo mints in Egypt and Marmite in Hawaii; and cried when no-one sang Auld Lang Syne for New Year’s Eve in Oz.

They say home is where the heart is. I met a Kiwi guy once in downtown Reykjavik. He’d fallen in love with an Icelandic woman back in New Zealand and crossed the globe to be with her. Love, it seems, really does conquer all – even Iceland’s impenetrable grammar.

But as anyone who’s ever been to Glastonbury knows, it’s not quite that simple. Festival accommodation is many things but homely isn’t one of them, no matter who you’re with. One in three British expats pack up and head home even when they’re surrounded by loved ones. Around half cited ‘cultural differences’ and/or ‘social isolation’ as key factors – they simply couldn’t relate to their new place of residence. To become a home, there needs to be a bond, a connection. As one friend joked, he knew he really was settled in Australia when he stopped supporting England in the cricket!

Safe as houses, home comforts. If a house offers physical security, a home is an emotional haven, a place where you belong and all that matters belongs in its place. Maybe it’s a landscape, a lifestyle or a state of mind – Our knowledge and beliefs, wants and needs are all individually clothed in layers of personal experience. Not feeling at home is every bit as uncomfortable as squeezing into that cocktail dress you last wore when you were 21. Yes, you can manage for a bit but sooner or later, it’s bound to end in tears.

But maybe there’s still more to it. Thinking in this way focuses on present company and past experience, all fine for living happily but what about the “ever after” bit? For me, a real home has to have a sense of future. Once I’d met my husband, my own home of more than a decade was never the same, even when he was there. It was my bachelorette pad, a place of pyjamas, pickled onions and other secret single behaviour: It wasn’t part of “us”. I’d loved it for years, but now it was just another place to live. A real home is the residential equivalent of Mr. Right vs Mr. Right Now. It’s the confidence this one will be worth sticking with no matter what life throws at you.

London isn’t always a great place to live (definitely not, given some of the places we’ve been over the years) but as I’ve written about before, it’s full of endless possibilities. The comfort of history, including my own, sits alongside the excitement of an ever-changing, multicultural future. Some people are lucky enough to know for sure what they want from life, but if you’re like me and still haven’t a clue, there’s nowhere else to be.

I’m sitting on the train back from the airport. After two weeks away, it’s a relief finally to have a decent cup of tea. It’s raining of course but the London skyline’s just come into view: There’s St. Paul’s, there’s The Shard and look! the Gherkin too.

It’s good to be home.