Geffrye Museum evokes ghosts of Christmas past

Geffrye Museum Christmas past 009

Detail of a ceiling light from a living room in 1935. Photograph: ©The Geffrye, Museum of the Home, London

Roast turkey, tinsel and mulled wine have long been Christmas staples in the UK, but such festive fare was not always so present in British homes.

Indeed, these were not the items of yesteryear in English homes, as the Christmas Past exhibition at Hoxton’s The Geffrye Museum amply demonstrates.

Across 11 rooms, the exhibition offers a glimpse of what Yuletide was like for families over the past 400 years, starting with a New Year’s Day Feast in a 1630 middle class London home, decorated in traditional festive spirit with evergreens and complete with bacon, eggs and leach – a boiled milk jelly similar to Turkish Delight.

Visitors can then move through to family tea in a 1745 parlour where a family are sipping on their post supper cordial before a family friend joins them for “two jellies and a glass of wine”.

After travelling through 400 years of Christmas joy, the exhibition ends in a loft style apartment in a trendy 1998 Shoreditch, with media and city types

Launching in 1989, Christmas Past saw an immediately positive reaction and 24 years later, the Geffrye Museum has been dedicating more time and research to expanding it each year.

Curator of Christmas Past, Alex Goddard says that the exhibition has become part of life at The Geffrye Museum and that there would probably be an “outcry” if they stopped putting it on.

“A lot of our visitors like to come back each year to enjoy the Christmas spirit, and we try to make sure it improves every time,” she says.

According to Goddard the rooms reflecting more contemporary Christmas scenes remain true to life in East London and include items belonging to the community.

She says: “It’s important that we reflect as closely as possible life in the middle class home, and Christmas remains one of the most visible celebrations of that kind.

“We have recently been building up an extensive archive of contemporary homes and Christmas diaries and photos donated by members of the public are helping us to capture for the future curators how people celebrate Christmas in the late 20th and early 21st centuries.”

Nancy Loader, who deals directly with visitors at The Geffrye Museum adds that the exhibition allows people to see a calmer side of Christmas.

“Many visitors comment that the exhibition provides a welcome retreat from the rather frantic, commercial Christmas of today and a chance to rediscover the real spirit of Christmas,” she says.

“The 20th century rooms in particular evoke nostalgic memories of childhood Christmases for many visitors and many say a visit to Christmas Past has become one of their own Christmas traditions.”

Based on real life accounts and diary entries, Christmas Past takes you back in time and all the way to the present in 11 rooms and is a sure way to get you into the Christmas spirit.

Christmas Past is on until 5 January 2014.

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