Review: The Ghosts of Christmas Past at the Geffrye Museum

Love Christmas, London and the (not so) ordinary? Then a visit to the Geffrye Museum’s exhibition ‘The Ghosts of Christmas Past’ is a must, says Morley art history tutor Michael Paraskos.

One of the annual joys of Christmas is the seasonal displays put on by the curators of the Geffrye Museum in east London. The Geffrye Museum calls itself the ‘Museum of the Home’, but as good a description might be the ‘Extraordinary Museum of Ordinary Things’ as it takes visitors on a journey through 400 years of history, looking at how ordinary people lived in ordinary homes in London. 

It does this through a series of period rooms, each showing a typical London home from a different moment in history. This starts with a hall room from the 1630s, when England was on the verge of its most brutal civil war, and runs through a series of drawing rooms and living rooms, ending almost at the present day. Although similar social history museums are common in the north of England, such as Beamish in County Durham and Abbey House Museum in Leeds, they are a rarity in London where the somewhat more aristocratic histories of the national museums tend to dominate. It is this that makes the  Geffrye Museum such as special place in London’s museum world.

Yet, what makes the Geffrye Museum particularly special at Christmas is the way the curators decorate each of the period rooms for the Christmas celebrations of the past. The attention to detail is astonishing and a testament to the importance of real scholarship in our museums. Not only do we see accurate period decorations, but also the actual species of Christmas tree used at any given time. As a result we are shown how the celebration of Christmas has long been important in England, but the way people have celebrated has changed dramatically. 

In the 1630s decorations were spartan, comprising just small sprigs of natural foliage. This was largely due to the rise of a puritan form of Protestantism in England which led to a general reduction in what was seen as Catholic excess in religious festivals. But as time moves forward in the museum displays the celebrations, and accompanying decorations, grow ever more elaborate. 

Perhaps the most decisive change is seen in the 1870 room, where the Christmas tree makes its first appearance following its popularisation by Prince Albert. Christmas cards also start to appear, a move that can be seen as the first step in the development of ready-made Christmas decorations, bought in shops, rather than home made or sourced from nature.

All of this is housed in the Geffrye Museum’s wonderful early Georgian building. It was originally built in 1714 as a set of alms houses, established in what open countryside for people described at the time as the ‘respectable poor’. As well as the period rooms in the main body of the museum, one of the alms houses has been restored to show how it would have looked in the eighteenth-century, with the residents living comfortable but simple lives.

As an early Georgian building the Geffrye is almost a prototype for what we now think of as Georgian architecture. It takes key elements from the buildings that came to dominate London following the Great Fire that destroyed the city in 1666, and refines them into the simple but elegant classicism that is still the most common form of building design across London today. Indeed, some of the Victorian terrace houses adjacent to Morley College are the direct descendants of the style of architecture seen at the Geffrye Museum.

The nearest station to the Geffrye Museum in Hoxton, which is conveniently located next door to the museum, and the Christmas displays will be on show until 4 January 2016.  

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