Christmas decorations and traditions

Greetings from a 1950s Santa Claus

The practice of putting up special decorations at Christmas has a long history. Today’s Christmas traditions may seem as old as the hills, but they are, in fact, put together from numerous centuries and countries. Some rituals have survived for millennia, but others, have fallen from vogue.

In the 16th century the Puritans spoilt all the fun as they “protested” against the ossified, superstitious rituals of the Catholic Church. To the Puritan mind, these included the degenerate celebrations at Christmas and they punished anyone caught celebrating. Some people still celebrated in secret and when Oliver Cromwell died and King Charles II was restored to the throne, Christmas returned. But it remained a lower-key, domestic affair throughout the 18th century. Christmas dinner, served at home, was usually beef, venison or goose with plum pudding. Although introduced into England in Tudor times the turkey did not catch on as a Christmas essential until the late 19th century.

Georgian houses were “decked with laurels, rosemary and other greenery”, and the later 18th century saw the German Christmas tree imported by the Hanoverian royal family. Teutonic trees had been decorated with apples, nuts and paper flowers since the 16th century. From Germany the custom of the Christmas tree was introduced to Britain, first via Queen Charlotte, wife of George III, and then more successfully by Prince Albert during the reign of Queen Victoria. By 1841 the Christmas tree had become even more widespread throughout Ireland. An image of the British royal family with their Christmas tree at Windsor Castle, created a sensation when it was published in the Illustrated London News in 1848 popularising the idea.

The Holly and the Ivy card from 1900

The Christmas card was another Victorian innovation. Henry Cole, the director of the Victoria and Albert Museum, is usually given credit for “inventing” the mass-produced card. So popular did these become that, by 1880, the Post Office advised people to “Post Early for Christmas.” The 1880s saw a curious trend for cards depicting dead robins. Helpless birds, killed by the December cold, appealed to the sentimental Victorians, who had also revived the charitable side of Christmas. Charles Dickens, of course, did more than anyone else to spread the good cheer with A Christmas Carol 1843.

Read more about traditions from the past and the special Christmas displays in the museum:

 
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