We are big fans of National Trust properties and luckily live near Fenton House which is a 17th century Merchant’s House in Hampstead. For Christmas, Fenton House London had a very cool exhibit about how the English celebrated Christmas through the ages. The periods shown off in the Fenton House rooms were a tribute to a Georgian Christmas, Victorian Christmas traditions, a flapper fabulous 1920s Christmas and a groovy 1970s Christmas.
- 1 Christmas Through The Ages
- 2 Georgian Christmas
- 3 Victorian Christmas Traditions
- 4 1920s Christmas
- 5 1970s Christmas
Christmas Through The Ages
For 20+ years, the Geffrye Museum of the Home in Hoxton, east London would host a very popular look at Christmas through the ages in London. As a large museum they were able to cover more of the different time periods of Christmas through the ages. Currently, however, the Geffrye Museum is closed for a major refurbishment and is due to open again in Spring 2020.
Its technically not all of the assorted Christmas through the ages that Fenton House London has seen but there are not that many rooms in the house. The contrast between the Georgian Christmas and Victorian Christmas traditions showed my family the origins of some of the traditions we keep today. The 1920’s Christmas was a high point in between what would have been the bleak Christmases during the wars. Unlike the prosperity of the 1950’s in the USA, the period after World War 2 in the UK was similarly bleak. I can understand why Fenton House London just wanted to jump ahead to the psychedelic good times of a 1970’s Christmas.
We didn’t actually recognise the Georgian Christmas decoration at Fenton House London as anything other than a nice dinner party.
Georgian traditions also meant that Christmas lasted a full month from December 6th until January 6th. If you remember all the Jane Austen novels, the people in her stories had parties and balls and family gatherings during Christmas time. Christmas in Victorian times was a much shorter affair because the Industrial Revolution meant people had to get back to work.
Georgian Christmas Food
Some of the Georgian Christmas food did seem familiar though. For example, after the Puritans banned Christmas Pudding for being too rich and sinful during the English Civil War, George I served it for his first Christmas dinner in 1714. This revival of the tradition of Christmas Pudding made it the big deal it is now. Georgian Christmas food also included mince pies and a Wassail Punch (similar to mulled wine).
Georgian Christmas Decorations
With its emphasis on food, Georgian Christmas decorations revolved around elaborate centrepieces on the dining table. You showed off your food and your best silver.
Georgian Christmas decorations also brought in nature. There was always a giant roaring fire and a Yule Log started on Christmas Eve. Growing up in New York, we always had a yule log blazing away on television. Now I know the antecedents to that television show (which my British husband thought was a joke when he first head about it). Nowadays, the Yule Log in England is usually made of chocolate.
he houses were decorated with holly and greenery. We can thank Georgian traditions and their love of greenery for the kissing under the mistletoe tradition we have today.
Victorian Christmas Traditions
Victorian Christmas traditions were the start of so many Christmas traditions we have nowadays. The contrast with the Georgian Christmas room at Fenton House London was quite stark. Unlike the Georgian Christmas the kids and I felt we actually recognised Christmas in Victorian times.
We can thank the Victorians for the origin of Christmas crackers, Christmas cards, Christmas shopping and the popularity of the Christmas tree. Christmas in Victorian times though was still a far simpler affair than what we know now.
Victorian Christmas Presents
The Victorians were conspicuous consumers and so it was only right that they started the boom in Christmas shopping. Thanks to the Industrial Revolution, goods like toys could be mass-produced which made them affordable for the growing middle class.
So you needed presents for under a Christmas tree which was a Germanic tradition introduced into England by Prince Albert in the 1840s. He thought Christmas trees were part of that whole family tradition that he and Victoria and their umpteen children wanted to promote. Christmas tree also became super popular when they made appearances in public places like schools. Photos of the Royal Family around a Christmas tree helped spread the propaganda, too.
And, the gifts kept coming. Victorian Christmas stockings filled with presents were introduced around 1870. Victorian Christmas stockings always contained an apple and an orange for health and a penny for prosperity. For poor kids, these would be all the Victorian Christmas presents they could expect.
The Tradition of Christmas Crackers
Who invented Christmas crackers? The inventor of Christmas crackers was a London-based confectioner’s apprentice called Tom Smith.
They weren’t popular for years until Tom Smith came up with the idea of having Christmas crackers pop when they get pulled apart. Now, Christmas crackers are so popular that it’s hard to imagine that the tradition of Christmas crackers was ever in doubt.
Victorian Christmas Cards
The history of Christmas cards started with Victorian Christmas cards. In 1843, Sir Henry Cole needed to streamline his Christmas letter writing. He commissioned an artist to create 1000 hand coloured lithographs to mail out as seasonal greetings. This brilliant idea of Victorian Christmas cards took off (you can see if why if everyone had 1000 Christmas greetings to send!).
Christmas in Victorian times ended with games like charades and popping Christmas crackers.
A 1920s Christmas was all about having fun and enjoyment after the hardships of World War I.
The 1920s invented the pre-dinner cocktail hour which was actually the two hours between 6 and 8pm. Affluent Americans stuck with Prohibition in the USA visited London to enjoy the party scene. People also took the cocktail scene into their own home.
A 1920’s Christmas tree was usually decorated with paper decorations and paper garlands. Glass ornaments were still expensive because they were handmade in Germany. If the house had electricity, you could have Christmas lights. People still had candles like Christmas in Victorian times.
From what we could tell from the Fenton House London exhibit depicting Christmas through the ages, in the 1970’s Christmas in England was all about board games and dodgy food. And cocktails to grease the wheels of merriment.
1970s Christmas Food & Drink
People had buffets because they were cheap and easy to do. The recipes were colorful (and outrageous by our standards). Nothing on this Earth would convince us to think that Ham and Banana Hollandaise was a special treat but times have changed.
The popular drinks were Babysham, Cinzano and Martini & Rossi. I remember when my mother-in-law asked for a Martini at Christmas, I was a little surprised when the martini came out of a bottle as opposed to a mixed martini cocktail. Now, I know why we have different conceptions of what a proper martini should be.
1970s Christmas Decorations
Check out this tree decked out in 1970s Christmas decorations. They definitely weren’t sparing on the tinsel. By the 1970s Christmas ornaments were plastic as well as glass which made them much more affordable.
1970’s Christmas Entertainment
In addition to playing board games, people used radio and television in the 1970’s as a form of Christmas entertainment. You had the Queen’s Speech at 3pm – the annual Christmas message from the monarch. Although it started as a radio message in 1939 when George VI during World War II to keep spirits up, It was first broadcast on television in 1952. Now you can listen to the Queen’s Speech on all forms of media including YouTube and a podcast.
For a 1970’s Christmas, you also sat around and watched a Christmas show or movie. The choices were limited back then unlike now when there is a huge choice of Christmas specials. I remember feeling television channels in the US were limited in the 1970’s but in Britain, there were only 3 channels (BBC 1 and 2 and ITV).
I always did wonder why every year at Christmas aliens descended on London in a Dr Who special Christmas episode.
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