Above: A selection of images from the various rooms at the exhibit. The exhibition begins in the mid-17th Century, and stretches to the late 1990s.
Christmas celebrations in England are rich with traditions stretching back hundreds of years – but which ones have survived and which ones perished? Georgia Harding and Lukas Gerve visit the Geffrye Museum’s Christmas Past exhibition for a closer look at Christmas throughout the years.
One typically doesn’t think of a visit to the museum as a quintessential Christmas outing, but an afternoon at the Christmas Past exhibit might just make you reconsider. The Geffrye Museum’s exhibition may not be Winter Wonderland, but it is a worthwhile look at English Christmas celebrations throughout the past four hundred years.
The exhibition is laid out in chronological order, so as you step from room to room the evolution is clear, with boards detailing changes in tradition and the popularity of the holiday as a whole. Beginning in the early 17th century, you’re taken on an educational journey all the way through to the late 90’s.
Throughout the drawing/living rooms and parlours, there is a constant reminder that Christmas perhaps wasn’t always as egalitarian as it seems today. Indeed, a lot of the supplemental information focuses on the lavish lifestyles enjoyed by the middle classes of the periods displayed in the exhibition – such as the tradition of making replicas of common foods, such as bacon and eggs, out of sugar, which was a luxury at the time in the 17th Century.
Whilst we found ourselves enjoying the time we spent at the exhibition, we also decided to speak to some of the patrons to get their thoughts on the exhibition.
“It’s a nice, quiet afternoon out,” said Lisa, a mother of two, whilst browsing the halls of the museum. “I thought it might be a little boring for my kids, but they seem to be enjoying it.”
“It’s so peaceful here, a lovely place to spend an hour or two and very interesting! I definitely think more people should come and check it out,” said Ethan, a local resident.
A lot of the supplemental information is printed on convenient hand-held cards, allowing patrons to take in the facts without competing for space with others.
The first section of the exhibit speaks about England in 1644 during the Civil War, when Christmas was banned by a Puritan-dominated Parliament – who disapproved of the excess indulgence tied to the holiday. Despite this, Christmas was still celebrated privately up until 1660, when the restoration of the monarchy resulted in the ban being lifted. However, in the 17th century, Father Christmas was associated with bringing ‘good cheere’; food, drinking and gambling, rather than the exchange of gifts we’re all used to in the present day.
The exhibition also serves to illustrate how the popularity of Christmas has waxed and waned throughout the years. As mentioned before, the celebration of Christmas was indeed reinstated by the monarchy, but the whole affair remained modest and subdued, at least until the early 19th Century, when the traditions of parlour games, such as charades and character-games emerged. During the reign of Queen Victoria, a lot of the modern traditions, such as the sending of postcards and the decoration of Christmas trees became commonplace; traditions which have survived to the present day.
Christmas Past also includes a programme of events to supplement the journey, which include craft fairs, festive evenings, carol singing and decoration workshops. All in all, the Christmas Past exhibition at the Geffrye Museum is a fun and interesting take on Christmas that can be browsed free of charge during your trips to Shoreditch this festive season.