Christmas Past at the Geffrye Museum


The Christmas period lasted for 12 days from the 25th of December. It was a time for generosity, compassion and goodwill with your family and community. Presents would be given throughout the season culminating with celebrations on The New Year and Twelfth Night.  This table is set for the 2nd course with ‘sugar-sculpted’ sweets humorously imitating foods such as bacon and eggs, pears and walnuts. Sugar was considered an expensive luxury and reserved for special occasions. In the middle lies a chequerboard of gilded and white leach, similar to Turkish delight. The use of evergreens above the mantle dates back to Pagan tradition and also early Christians who used it a s a symbol for everlasting life.


During and after the Civil War, Christmas was banned until the restoration of the monarchy in 1660, with Puritans disapproving of the heavy drinking and gambling that the festive period had encouraged. With the return of Christmas it still however retained somewhat of a sober impression. Family, friends and fellow church-goers were invited to listen to music, drink punch, eat olives and anchovies before attending church.



Although turkey had been introduced into this country by the 1530’s, beef was still the main Christmas dish until the late 19th century. It would be served with plum pudding – a boiled pudding of suet, flour, eggs and dried fruit. (the forerunner to Christmas pudding) Landlords showed a wane in charity towards their tenants around the end of the 18th century and their was major concern that Christmas was turning into a celebration only accessible for the rich.


Celebrating Christmas reestablished itself in the early 19th century, particularly in the marking of the Twelfth Night, combining elements of the Christian feast of Epiphany, the visit of the wise men in Bethlehem and the end of the pagan feast of Saturnalia/winter solstice. Taking on from medieval times of role reversal games and elaborate costumes a ‘King’ and ‘Queen’ were chosen for the evenings proceedings to be served by their ‘courtiers’. Inside the Twelfth Night cake hid a dried bean for deciding the King and a pea for the Queen. Such was the random nature of the game that a servant could end up as King being served by his master throughout the night. The different court characters were often chosen by picking cards.


Prince Albert’s enthusiasm for the German tradition of decorating the fir tree finally took off after the Royal family began installing a tree at Windsor every year after his marriage to Victoria in 1840. Here, it dominates the room and has been embellished with candles, toys, sweets and flags.


Unlike the Christmas tree, the ‘Christmas Card’ is actually an English innovation. It was often given by children to their parents to prove their faculty of neat handwriting. The first commercial card was devised by Sir Henry Cole in 1843 in order to save time and money when writing festive greetings to his numerous social and business contacts. By the 1860’s it had taken on in a big way and with a cheap rate stamp introduced for postcards and unsealed envelopes in 1870, the mailing of Christmas cards increased considerably.


An Edwardian period drawing room representing the semi-detached style of the new suburbs of North London. Note that electricity is now a feature.


A cocktail and canape party to impress the neighbours. Lanterns reflect the fashion for Asian decor and an artificial tree marks the emergence of the eco-conscious household. Everyone will sit down to listen to the King’s Christmas speech on the wireless at 3pm. A tradition that started in 1932 by George V which continues to be broadcast today on the radio, TV and internet with our current Queen Elizabeth II.


Christmas Present

Hoping Nigella/Jamie/Heston comes to the rescue this Christmas after last year’s disastrous smoked duck with chorizo stuffing. Better check there’s enough chilled champagne to quell any other cooking dramas.


…and so, with a most dazzling sprawl of Westminster vista in front of me from my seat on the big wheel in Winter Wonderland do I wish you all a most charitable Christmas and compassionate NewYear…wherever you may be. xx



About londoninsight

A compassionate photographer working to better her understanding of her town, her village, London.
This entry was posted in Celebration, Christmas, Food and Drink, Interiors and tagged , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

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