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

3 thoughts on “Xmas Past & Xmas Presents: 400 Years of Xmas Tradition at the Geffrye Museum

  1. Oh, well done, Lindsey! – not only seasonal, but informative and interesting! I TRUST you have not forgotten that in 2014 I am awaiting follow-up from that wonderful post about the London lecture scene …? No, of course you haven’t! [grin]

    • @MR Not forgotten – I promise! Already have some amazing talks in the calendar – “Is there such thing as a Criminal Mind?” and “The sins of the Father”, an interview with three sons of senior SS officials on growing up with their father’s genocide. I have a particular interest in the history of WW2 although to say I’m “looking forward to it” doesn’t seem appropriate given the challenging subject matter.
      Hope you had a wonderful Xmas. Happy New Year.
      All the best

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