The Geffrye Museum’s annual ‘Christmas Past’ exhibition looks at the past 400 years of festive traditions in middle-class English homes, and offers a wonderful insight into so many of this seasons now commonplace activities from the food we eat, to the decorations we put up, sending cards, hanging stockings, and kissing under the mistletoe! Based in Hoxton (East London) the museum comprises of eleven period rooms all in former 18th century almshouses originally built to house London’s poor and elderly from 1780 to 1880. The first period room dates from 1600 and they continue through to the present day, each one furnished accordingly to reflect changes in middle-class society, behaviour and tastes. I enjoyed witnessing the evolution of Christmas in the home, from the evergreens (a Pagan custom adopted by Christians) and ‘kissing boughs’ (early mistletoe) of the 1600’s, to the Rosemary and Bay of the 1700’s, and the introduction of fir trees under the reign of Queen Victoria in the 1800’s. I was also surprised by how much I learnt; I was previously unaware that Christmas was banned in this county during the Civil War as parliament was at the time dominated by Puritans who disapproved of the excess that Christmas encouraged (and the ban was only lifted in 1660 when the monarchy was restored), or that sending Christmas cards is a late nineteenth century English invention introduced by Henry Cole who sold the first commercial card in 1843 and it became a popular custom from 1870 when The Post Office introduced a cheap rate for postcards and unsealed envelopes. The almshouses are situated within tranquil gardens and there’s also an impressive on-site café serving local East London produce, so I’d certainly advise visiting the museum before the Christmas show finishes on 3rd January!
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