The Geffrye Museum of the Home in London has an annual exhibition showing the houses of Christmas past. Showcasing how our homes looked at Christmas going back 400 years. It’s an amazing insight into the evolution of traditions and customs. So we wondered – which was the best time for Christmas?
Step back through the centuries and discover the origins and meanings of some of the rich and vibrant traditions of Christmas past, from feasting, dancing and kissing under the mistletoe to playing parlour games, hanging up stockings, sending cards, decorating the tree and throwing cocktail parties.
1600s Christmas Home
We start our journey in the mid 1600s in a London house. The table is set for a New Year’s Day feast – a second course which had a mixture of sweet and savoury dishes. Sugar was still very expensive at this time in history, so these were a real treat. The sweets were created to look like savoury things like bacon and eggs. Oh the whimsy! In there is some white leach which was a little like Turkish delight and made of boiled milk jelly.
The rest of the house would be decorated with fresh greenery like rosemary and bay. Many homes would have a ‘kissing bough’ a precursor to mistletoe. It was all pretty understated. The whole celebration lasted 12 days.
1700s Christmas House
The next picture shows a parlour in 1745. Things were pared down at this point in history – this was a leftover from the reign of Cromwell. Christmas was more about going to church, seeing family and giving to charity and sharing gifts (which were usually food).
1800s Christmas Home
This 1830s drawing room shows how the Christmas season enjoyed a revival. The picture shows a twelfth night cake. The cake became more and more ornate – the one here has sugar frosting and gilded paper. It was more like a real cake than bean and pea ingredients used in the past, no really, bean and pea. People played a game called the Twelfth Night game which is a little like modern day charades.
Queen Victoria and Prince Albert are credited with bringing about most of the traditions we still enjoy to this day. Such as the Christmas tree, and its decorations. This was also the era that saw Christmas cards become popular. The first commercial card was devised by Henry Cole in 1843, to save him time writing cards to business contacts and friends. The custom really caught on in the 1860s and by 1880 the Post Office were reminding people to post early for Christmas.
Other interesting developments during this time included the Aesthetic Movement, which inspired this 1890s drawing room. It drew a lot of inspiration from Japan and houses would use paper lanterns as decorations.
20th Century Christmas Home
Our homes evolved so much over the last century, so it only seems fair that we look at each decade. It’s surprising how much our traditions and way we decorate have changed and yet feel the same.
The drawing room shows a garland around the picture rail and presents beside the tree. In the early 20th century, the stocking became popular. This was inspired by the Saint Nicholas story that kids would leave their shoes outside on Christmas night and hope that they would get presents in them (and not lumps of coal).
The Twenties were a big party era. The Great War was over, everyone needed to let off some steam and no-one knew what was round the corner (thank goodness they partied while they could!). Christmas trees were festooned with lights, decorations and now candy canes. Lights were often open flame candles – so it was pretty dangerous. Tinsel was used in the houses of the more well-to-do families who could afford it.
The Thirties saw a few shifts in the present giving tradition – children and adults would receive one big present, in addition to the stocking at the end of the bed. The stockings usually contained an apple, an orange, a soft toy and some sweets. Trees would have special electric lights in the shape of animals, fruit and flowers which were brightly coloured.
Rooms were decorated with paper lanterns and paper chains. In Central London, young couples would host social gatherings for friends, while families would work together to bring together Christmas lunch. Traditionally the Christmas tree wouldn’t be decorated until Christmas Eve, so often the children would see the tree for the first time on Christmas morning.
The 1940s came with rationing, bombing and men sent off to war. It was a hard time for families, with many of the traditional foods and presents no longer available. Families would decorate their bomb shelters. Parents rallied to make the best of the situation and still make Christmas a special time for children. We can’t even imagine what it must’ve been like for families separated – dads abroad, mums working for the war effort, children off as evacuees.
The Ministry of Supply banned paper wrapping. So meals were sparse, gifts were homemade, cards were thin and flimsy. But even with all this misery, British families welcomed in American GIs to their homes on Christmas Day (who were able to bring comparatively lavish gifts from the USA). According to the Ministry of Information, by 1944 £35,000 was being shared by troops and citizens in a YMCA scheme to ensure that families had enough for gifts.
Have to confess to being a little choked up just imagining what the families went through at that time. Christmas Eve 1940 was the 57th consecutive night of bombing in the Blitz. Ed
The Empire was still in full swing, we had a new Queen – who continued the annual Christmas speech that was started by her father. This decade felt like a transition into more modern times. And this was reflected (quite literally) in the newer decoration styles. Fake trees in silvers and whites were popular. There was still rationing but at the end of the decade the economy was finding its feet and everyone was in a very optimistic mood. Christmas TV became a big thing, with families gathering to watch the Christmas Specials.
People were now living in what felt like the future – the space race made everything a bit cool and modern. Baubles were brightly coloured and popular presents included the Spirograph and Fuzzy Felts. Carol singing enjoyed a bit of a comeback and the kids especially loved going out and singing for a sixpence or a mince pie.
Ah, the decade that taste forgot. Multicoloured lights, fake snow from a can (god, that stuff stinks!). Fake trees were even more popular. Itchy, fibre glass things. Tinsel was used in abundance. You had to get the Radio Times to see what was on TV – which was a focal point of Christmas. Advent calendars were the start of the holiday season – with little pictures behind their doors rather than chocolate (although the first of these was around as early as the 1950s). Slade was on the record player.
Wham wore their Christmas jumpers without irony. It was all a bit cheesy, and flammable – all that hairspray and nylon! We all gathered round the TV to see who’d made it to Christmas Number 1. And then again to watch the big Christmas movie – no Netflix, no online streaming. If you’d not seen it in the cinema, this was your one chance. And no pausing it to pop to the loo. You’d better be sitting down and ready to go when it came on! Of course, if you were lucky, you would be able to bring your TV downstairs to have a basement cinema and have fun watching Christmas movies!
The 90s were all about getting the must-have toy (even more so than the two previous decades, which had their fair share!). So what was underneath the tree was almost more important than what was on the tree. However, quite a big change started during this decade – smaller fairy lights. Before, the bulbs had been quite large; now marked the time when bulbs started getting smaller and now they’re often tiny twinkling LED lights. Big plastic Christmas decorations started popping up outside people’s homes and arguably the outdoor lights decorations started around now.
So which era did you like the most? Which most reflects how you decorate your home? Vote now! Share with friends to see which they like best…