A few weeks ago we travelled up to London to visit a museum I had never come across before: the Geffrye Museum. Reading about it in Family Tree magazine inspired me to visit, especially since it is closing in the new year for a substantial refurbishment.
The Geffrye is housed in Eighteenth century almshouses in Hoxton and is wonderful for a social historian, depicting as it does the changing styles of home interiors through a series of period room from the 16th to the 21st centuries.
Currently they have a ‘Christmas Past, Christmas Present’ exhibition running through the rooms. We were fascinated by the decorations used and the type of foods consumed.
Twelfth night scarcely features on a modern calendar, except for the few who go wassailing and perform mummer’s plays. But in former times it had a greater prominence and I was interested to read of ‘Twelfth cake’ – a fruit cake made with yeast. Originally this contained a dried bean or pea and the person finding it was then elected King or Queen of the night. I quite fancy making a Twelfth Cake, but I think I might omit the dried bean!
Moving on to rooms from the nineteenth century, items of furniture became reminiscent of those in grandparents’ houses and the increasing popularity of the Christmas tree also became evident. Mum still has a tree decoration which her mother remembered being on their tree during her childhood in the 1890s. Mum was talking about Christmas trees the other day: during the second world war they did not have a tree and in the subsequent few years, when the family were sharing a house, there was no space for one. It was not until they were able to move to their own home when Mum was in her late teens that they were finally able to have a Christmas tree.
Despite the increased popularity of sending Christmas greetings by email, Messenger or WhatsApp, I don’t think we have received fewer cards in the post this year. The custom of sending cards dates from the 1860s and it’s certainly a tradition I’m keen to maintain. Reading my Granny’s 1937 diary I am surprised how last minute the Christmas preparations were: cards were being sent out only a couple of days before Christmas. “Wednesday 22nd December – busy day writing and doing up packets, then to Waddon Post Office after school”. I guess with several collections and deliveries a day there was no worry about cards not getting to people in time.
But we have many things in common with the celebration of Christmas in my Mum’s family 80 years ago: going to Church, having turkey, Christmas pudding and Christmas cake. They listened to George VI’s Christmas message on their brand new wireless; we will watch the Queen on TV.
This year the Father Christmas figure, now 87 years old, has once again taken up his central position on Mum’s Christmas cake; the little paper lanterns I made with my daughter when she was a child have been blu-tacked in their habitual place and the small plastic tree I bought in Woolworths in 1987 has once more been found a position.
The Geffrye displays brought back memories for us of paper chains, wrapping paper and board games and was a great way of learning about Christmas Past. The museum closes on 7th January, but I definitely recommend a visit. https://www.geffrye-museum.org.uk/ .