It is not impossible that Christmas might eventually follow Michaelmas and Candlemas into picturesque obscurity. After all, it has happened before. Mrs W and I explored the vicissitudes of yuletide over the centuries at the excellent Geffrye Museum, which occupies a group of former almshouses in Hackney. At this time of year, the museum decks out its permanent displays of English domestic interiors with decorations appropriate to the era. In the Jacobean period, the evergreen embellishments are so pleasantly restrained that even the austere arbiters of Harvey Nichols would find no fault with them. The edible confections are equally delightful - marzipan "hedgehogs" and "bacon and eggs" made from sugar (an ancestor of the rock "breakfasts" still sold at the seaside).
These jollifications were banned by the Puritans, who took against the evergreen as a pagan symbol. Even after the Restoration, festivities were on the spartan side. In one room from the 1660s, the decorations are limited to a stuffed armadillo. Forty years on, the Christmas supper consists of a pork pie and a few oysters. (I noticed that one of the shells is from a deep-shelled Pacific oyster, an unlikely comestible in 1700, unless it came over with the armadillo.) Throughout the 18th century, Christmas remained deeply unfashionable.
It was, of course, our German royals who started the rot. Everyone knows that Prince Albert initiated the peculiar Teutonic practice of bringing the forest into our living rooms, but I was not aware that the Prince Consort's fondness for stodgy puddings resulted in the dyspeptic dessert we are obliged to hack our way through today - before that we used to scoff plum porridge, a thick soup made with prunes.
After the Victorian clutter, subsequent rooms provide contrasting Christmas styles. In an aesthete's parlour set in the Naughty Nineties, chinese lanterns dangle from white-frosted twigs. Next door, children of the Edwardian bourgeoisie have left behind "a glass of sherry and a mince pie - the English equivalent of the Dutch tradition of leaving fodder for St Nicholas's horse". (How sensible of our forebears to make this switch, much more agreable for paterfamilias than chomping through carrots and hay on Christmas Eve.)
But the room which attracted the greatest attention is from the Fifties: winking fairy-lights, a Sparklets syphon, sandwiches with their edges trimmed off, the cream on a sherry trifle whipped into stiff peaks like a hair-do of the period. A group of visitors admired the Redicutt rugs ("I've still got two in the spare room. They don't wear out"), before turning their attention to the paper streamers. "Do you remember those paper chains?" A codger mistily recalled. "We used to make them at school. I can taste the gum now." In the museum shop, it is possible to experience this British version of Proust's madeleine ("6 colours. 72 pieces to make 18ft of chain. 79p"). I can't report on the experience because Mrs W issued an interdict. "There are limits to Christmas nostalgia," she barked. I suppose she'll be getting out the stepladder next.
After a noggin or two of port, it is easy to find oneself yearning for the sentimental milieu portrayed on Christmas cards, but it is as well to bear in mind the drawbacks. Travelling by stage-coach was an interminable torture and cheapskates perched on the outside regularly froze to death. The extended holiday which we all enjoy, while continuing to moan how "the country shuts down for a fortnight", is very much a modern invention. On Christmas Day 1662, Samuel Pepys sent out to the bakers for mince-pies because his wife was ill. (He didn't have to survive on shop-made products for long. By Boxing Day he recorded "My wife to the making of Christmas pies all day being pretty well again.") You'll also recall that, two centuries onward, the reformed Ebenezer Scrooge was able to buy a prize turkey on Christmas morning. However, one aspect of the holiday has been around for a surprisingly long time. It seems that the slogan "Post Early for Christmas" first appeared in 1882. Perhaps I should add that this directive meant that people should reach the pillar box early on Christmas Eve to ensure delivery later that day.
Did you know that the "Scent of Christmas" is available from Marks & Sparks? Rather than the combination of stale beer, cheap cigars and the hot plastic pong of an overheated TV which fills Weasel Villas at this time of year, it is "an exciting room fragrance based on cloves and cinnamon with a hint of orange". The strange notion of a seasonal aroma is just one of a number of inventive lines from M&S. Judging by the rapidly emptying shelves, its "extremely soft and strong Christmas toilet tissues" have been a shrewd move, though it is hard to imagine what the company's French customers will make of "Papier Toilette: Decor de Noel". Since this product is decorated with festive penguins, they may well assume that it has been fabricated from recycled paperbacks.
While on the topic of Christmas lines, two members of the Weasel household have been tucking into turkey and stuffing for several weeks now. Mr Growser (who is not a male) and Captain Haddock (who has no maritime associations) have found the special seasonal edition of Felix cat food very much to their taste. It doesn't smell too bad at all. Since I find the human equivalent of their yuletide feast less than addictive, I'm tempted to join the moggies at their bowl on Christmas Day - but, knowing the feline temperament, I doubt if an invitation will be forthcoming.
I'm rather partial to the newspaper quizzes about events of the past year. But there is an inevitable feeling of repetition after you've worked through half a dozen of them. This year promises to be worse than ever following a recent sad departure. I doubt if a single compiler of Christmas conundrums will resist the temptation to refer to Dickens' tear-jerking line: "I am sure we shall none of us forget poor Tiny Tim."
Following the success of my Christmas present round-up of a fortnight ago, here's a final selection of ideas to help you through the panicky run-up to the dread day. The Times Magazine provides the invaluable recommendation of a pounds 3,500 lump of amber filled with many antique forms of insect life (many of the light fittings in Weasel Villas are similarly tenanted and could be made available at a considerably lower price). The Evening Standard Magazine feels that your life will not be complete without a silver-plated sugar shaker (pounds 155) - should your aim be flawed, there's also a silver- plated crumb sweeper (pounds 60). Finally, I hope it will not seem too immodest to mention the Independent Magazine's suggestion of night lights (99p for a packet of six). One can only picture the incandescent joy of anyone who opens such a gift.
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