Christmas Time-Travelling at the Geffrye Museum

DISCOVER HOW Christmas was celebrated in the English home over the centuries from 1600 to the present day at the Geffrye Museum.

Christmas in 1935, by Steve Speller
Christmas in 1935, photo by Steve Speller

A NOSTALGIC exhibition called Christmas Past, running to 3 January, takes visitors time-travelling through London’s Geffrye Museum. Eleven period living rooms – which show middle-class taste from 1600 to the present day – are decorated in authentic seasonal style. The journey begins in the oak-panelled 1630’s hall, where sweet-smelling greenery entices guests towards delicious sweetmeats like marchpane (a kind of marzipan) decorated with gold leaf. Sugar is expensive, but for these festivities, it’s been made into amusing imitations of dishes like egg and bacon! Family and friends will eat hugely in the early 19th century, too, but a highlight of Regency festivities is the Twelfth Night cake. Diners who find a hidden bean or dried pea in their slice are ceremoniously crowned King and Queen with gold paper coronets. Royalty also influences the Victorian Christmas. From the 1850s, Christmas without Prince Albert’s favourite decorated tree is unthinkable. Beautiful glass ornaments and (then) real candles make it magical. It is also the first time children take part in the celebrations, so there are toys galore in this room set.

Christmas in 1870, by Jayne Lloyd
Christmas in 1870, photo by Jayne Lloyd

It’s all a huge contrast to the cool cocktail party of the l930s, laid out with frightfully smart canapés and special cocktail sticks to stir your gin sling! In contrast, the 1965 room has fashionable Scandinavian-style furniture. Here are tasteful garlands and a smart table decoration of holly and ultra thin red candles in a blue bowl. The children wanted the new – and expensive  – plastic toys, but are given a wooden train set and jigsaws instead. Christmas Past is a fascinating festive stroll through domestic history.
Geffrye Museum’ London, (in the former Ironmongers’ Company almshouses), Kingsland Road, London E2; tel: (020) 7739 9893;