Merry Christmas! As you get set to enjoy your Christmas Day, here’s a unique insight into how our ancestors decorated for the day courtesy of Hannah Fleming, curator of Christmas Past at the Geffrye Museum

How much do you enjoy putting on the Christmas Past exhibition?

It takes our team of curators a day and a half to transform the museum’s 11 period rooms, decorating each to tell a story of different Christmas traditions from the past 400 years, so it takes a fair amount of time and effort – but we do all enjoy doing it.

When did the exhibition first take place and what inspired the idea?

This is the 25th year the Geffrye has staged its Christmas exhibition. Christmas often has a transformative effect on people’s homes, and the idea initially was to use the period rooms to highlight some seasonal traditions and decorations that may now have disappeared and to tell the story of how the celebration of Christmas has waxed and waned over the centuries.

Why do you think the exhibition is so well loved today?

I think Christmas Past at the Geffrye has become something of an institution and visiting it has become a tradition in itself for many of our visitors. 

Christmas Past at the Geffrye Museum

A drawing room in 1830

It covers 400 years, but in a nutshell what has been the biggest change over that time when it comes to Christmas in homes?

Probably the biggest change is the appearance of the Christmas tree. Evergreens like holly, ivy, laurel and bay have a long history of being used for decoration, but since about the middle of the 19th century, a tree has become an essential emblem of the season.

Is there one thing that particularly surprises you?

Perhaps it shouldn’t be that surprising, but complaints about Christmas seem to have as long a history as the celebration itself. Philip Stubbes, the author of The Anatomie of Abuses, complained particularly bitterly in 1583:

‘That more mischief is that time committed than in all the year besides, what masking and mumming, whereby robbery, whoredom, murder and whatnot is committed? What dicing and carding, what eating and drinking, what banqueting and feasting is then used, more than in all the year besides, to the great dishonour of God and impoverishing of the realm.’

Christmas Past at the Geffrye Museum

Note the Christmas tree in this 1870 drawing room, something that took off mid-19th century

Do you have a favourite period?

I like the quietness of the 1790 room this year, in comparison with some of the later rooms that look a lot more visibly Christmassy.

What can you tell me about the related events?

Throughout the exhibition we’ve had a Christmas concert, carols, a ‘Georgian Christmas’ open evening and craft and greenery workshops. Coming up, we have ‘Farewell to Christmas’ in the garden on Tuesday 6 January from 3.30 to 5pm – there’ll be a fire, carol singing, stories about Epiphany, mulled wine and Twelfth Night cake.

And finally is the Geffrye Museum the perfect venue at Christmas time?

Of course!

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