Thursday, 3 December 2015

Enjoy 400 years of Christmas in Hackney

A hint of holly, 16th century style
The advent of Advent means that it’s just about decent to mention a certain winter festival – which also means that it’s the perfect time to recommend a visit to the Geffrye Museum to check out Christmas Past: 400 years of seasonal traditions in English homes.

For those of you who are unfamiliar with it, the Geffrye is a museum of the English domestic interior in Hackney.

First opened in 1914 and extended in 1998, the main body of the museum sits in the Grade 1-listed almshouses of the Ironmongers’ Company, which were built in 1714 thanks to a bequest from the eponymous Sir Robert Geffrye.

In these are recreations of rooms through the centuries – rooms of the urban ‘middling sort’, as an introduction explains.

It’s a fascinating museum at any time, but each year at this point in the year, the rooms are decked out in appropriate Christmas garb, providing a further educational aspect to a visit.

It’s intriguing to see how – in middle-class homes at least – Christmas faded rather over the centuries, with many old, pagan-based traditions dying out.

A recognisable Victorian Christmas
The early rooms, starting with the 17th century, see little in the way of decoration – a small sprig of holly here or there leaves you hunting to spot indications of the season.

What we recognise as Christmas only began in the 19th century, in the Victorian era, when the relevant room is decked out in a way that is instantly recognisable.

The notes point out that, although Prince Albert is often credited with introducing Christmas trees to Britain from Germany, this overstates the situation.

But his enthusiasm for the Tannenbaum was crucial in its developing popularity – not least give the swathes of the public who were caught up in the cult of the young royal family.

Unlike the festive tree, the Christmas card was an English invention – from Sir Henry Cole in 1843, although it was a couple of decades before it really took off, with the Post Office having to ask people to ‘post early’ by 1880 – although that only meant post by Christmas Eve!

Christmas in hip Shoreditch
Interestingly, the 19th century was also when there was a revival in some of the old traditions that had faded over the centuries: for instance, an old Twelfth Night game reappeared, but as something closer to charades.

There are a number of rooms covering the 20th century – there were many changes in design over that period – and all these reflect a world that we are more personally familiar with.

The exhibition takes us to ‘the present’, ending in a “converted industrial building or warehouse in the newly-fashionable area around Shoreditch”.

This year’s look at Christmas past is on at the Geffrye until 3 January. There are plenty of activities and events organised over that period too.

And a fine café and shopped absolutely packed with Christmas baubles and games gives visitors more to do.

If you can’t make it in the coming weeks, the Geffrye is a gem at any time of the year – and with the Hoxton overground station right behind it now, it’s even easier than before to reach.

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