With just a few weeks to go until the carefully wrapped presents are no longer under the Christmas tree,  Eleanor Claire Hilton Domm was asked to do a little celebratory research. What was Christmas like in the Twenties? The Thirties, Forties or the Fifties, even? How have traditions evolved through the 20th century and has it always been this commercial?

Not one to be a Scrooge I immediately got into the festive spirit, gathered a few vital eye witness accounts and popped straight over to London’s Shoreditch to explore the ‘Christmas Past, Christmas Present’ exhibition at the Geffrye Museum, I even passed a retro Santa on my way (wearing Liberty print sunglasses)!

Despite initially expecting to go back in time and witness very different aspects of Christmas, I was pleasantly surprised to see that tradition is fundamentally consistent throughout the Twenties right through until the Eighties proving that a little vintage charm will always be in fashion. Here’s a little bit of history to start off with.

In the 1600s homes were decked with evergreens (a Pagan custom to symbolise everlasting life) and Kissing Bough (the precursor for today’s Mistletoe). Tables were scattered with savoury and sugary sweet dishes – a luxury – and the entire celebration lasted twelve days. The 1700s marked the start of the Christmas revival following its suppression under Cromwell and by 1870, Prince Albert’s enthusiasm for custom helped popularise the Christmas tree immensely. This German tradition was quickly adopted by the British who became fascinated with indoor tree decoration – an obsession that will never cease.IMAGE 1 - 1900s Christmas

Those celebrating Christmas in the late 1800s were clearly inspired by the Aesthetic Movement and its love for all things Japanese. Beautiful paper lanterns were hung upon branches and oriental fans covered the interior walls, most of which would not look out of place today for an oriental theme.

Despite the Christmas tree tradition not being an English invention, the thoughtful Christmas card was. Apparently, according to my sources, Sir Henry Cole devised the first commercial card in 1843 in order to save him from writing individual letters to his many social and business contacts. It became a custom, in the 1860s, to send cards and in 1880 the Post Office advised people to “post early for Christmas” having been burdened with extra seasonal workload. Little did they know what was to come!

In the early 20th Century another trend was born – the stocking. This, in fact, was an adaptation of the Saint Nicholas Day custom to leave shoes out, in the hope that their inhabitants will receive treats for being well behaved and not lumps of coal.

I must admit, being a shoe addict, I quite like the idea of festive shoes filled with gifts rather than stockings – regardless of the reduced space.

IMAGE 2 - 1920s ChristmasThe Twenties  – a magical ambiance

Traditions we celebrate today were in full swing by the mid Twenties. Christmas trees, lights, feasting and elaborate decoration all worked alongside each other to create a magical atmosphere based upon custom and extravagance, naturally.

Christmas trees were sparse and most were now indoors sprinkled with candy canes – thanks to Bob McCormack – but the Roaring Twenties decadence still featured highly; the Twenties were extremely festive just as a matter of course.

The Arts and Crafts movement had clearly influenced the era and was evident through illustrative advertisements that became more apparent in 1929. The popular image of Santa Claus was widely accepted, particularly in America, and the feel of Christmas certainly was “in the air”.

IMAGE 3 - 1930s ChristmasThe Thirties to Forties – from one extreme, to another

According to an eyewitness, Christmas celebrations were very short and sweet in the Thirties and Forties. The family worked together to make the Christmas pudding, silver coins were stirred into the mixture and each member granted a wish when it was their turn to stir on Stir Sunday.

Everyone had one main present, instead focusing on the stocking at the bottom of the bed that usually contained an apple, an orange (before the war), a soft cuddly toy, sweets and some nuts, depending on the family’s situation.

Christmas rationing was introduced in the Forties and many items that people had taken for granted were removed from shops for a decade at least.

Santa Claus was still very much a symbol of Christmas and many children believed he existed. In some families someone dressed up as Santa delivering presents on Christmas Eve.

The children wouldn’t see the fully decorated tree until the morning – the mother would make it pretty, adding finishing touches whilst her children were asleep.

IMAGE 4 - Christmas through the DecadesThere was a huge emphasis on family during the Thirties and Forties and homes were filled with love and security, yet Central London’s young couples focused primarily on the party side of things. An annual cocktail party usually took place on Christmas Eve to impress all with fabulous canapés, handmade paper decorations and an artificial tree.

Decorations replaced evergreens at the start of the 20th century; they were tidier and less expensive. Electric lights draped the tree and paper lanterns represented the on-trend fascination with all things Japanese.

For families, Christmas Day was for the children. They would wake up early, open presents and go to the chapel whilst lunch was in the oven. The table was always laid out beautifully, everyone had to wash-up and help clean. Children were sent out for a walk in the afternoon before attending a carol service and the hard-working parents snoozed in the chair.

Evening saw plenty of party games, a favourite being “Blind Man’s Buff”, and Jelly Custard and Christmas cake for tea. Before the Queen’s speech in 1956, the King’s Christmas broadcast was avidly followed through wireless. On Boxing Day many people visited relatives, enjoying the last few days of Christmas over leftovers and sherry; a tradition that really hasn’t changed much at all.

IMAGE 5 - Christmas 1940sChristmas in the Fifties and Sixties – more than a little Elvis charm

World War Two had finished less than five years ago and luxuries such as meat, butter and sweets were still rationed.

Commercial television did not appear on the screens until the mid Fifties allowing children to appreciate the magic of Christmas without being distracted by the latest must-have.

Carol singing was an important part of Christmas from the Forties onwards but especially in the late Fifties early Sixties. Everyone would let the children sing before giving them a sixpence, a mince pie or a sausage roll.

Lunch was a feast of turkey and all the trimmings followed by crackers and Christmas Pud’. “All festivities were accompanied by a little Elvis”, my father recalled. Games were played in the afternoon once the present debris was cleared away! Uncles, aunts and grandparents would arrive for Christmas afternoon just in time to hear the Queen’s speech.

IMAGE 8 - 1970s ChristmasThe Seventies and Eighties– bay City Rollers and lava lamps.

There will always be a focus on reliving a Victorian Christmas. Most of us will decorate the trees with homemade cookies and enjoy a religious occasion with our loved ones. The Seventies however, will help us reflect upon a more entertaining side to Christmas, for example, lists requesting “Bay City Rollers LPs, lava lamps and chopper bikes” from Santa.

Both decades featured rather a lot of television and it was inevitable that commercial advertising would rapidly increase; Christmas adverts, documentaries, animations and films have since suffocated us all with far too much choice and very little magic.

I’m not saying I don’t/ didn’t watch any television at all – I will forever love Raymond Briggs’ Father Christmas, both the book and the film – but truly believe that bringing a little vintage enchantment back into Christmas will remind us all what it’s really about. Let’s leave the Veruka Salt’s of this world behind and instead concentrate on the thoughtful gift, this year.

IMAGE 9 - 1980s Christmas

One Response

  1. Jodie

    What a wonderful record of vintage traditions. I wish I could find some authentic vintage Christmas decorations. I recently found a full coloured catalogue from Christmas 1923-24 of handmade Christmas gift ideas which had some amazing items made in the home of the twenties household as Christmas gifts. http://www.iopshopalot.com.au/?p=672