Christopher Hirst: We wish you a minimalist Christmas

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The Independent Online

The Geffrye Museum in the East End of London is a former almshouse where each room has been furnished in the style of a different era. A decade ago, the Geffrye had the bright idea of dressing each room with appropriate Christmas decorations. There is no finer place for seeing how our annual Bacchanalia has changed over the years.

It starts wonderfully with a Jacobean room suffused with the scent of evergreen swags and pomanders. A table is laden with tempting but modest confections, including marzipan in the form of bacon and eggs, a linear ancestor of the unconvincing rock "breakfast" still sold at Blackpool and Scarborough.

Subsequent rooms reveal how Christmas was banned by the Puritans – "a time of masking and mumming, whereby robbery, whoredom, murder and what not is committed" – before staging a robust recovery with the Restoration. The revels of Pepys and his pals were too raucous for the Georgians, who, judging by their room, celebrated Christmas with nothing more than a plate of oysters and a caraway-seed cake. But the real surprise comes in the early 19th century, when Christmas all but disappeared.

The reason was a force far stronger than legislation. Christmas simply became unfashionable. "In 20 of the years between 1790 and 1835, The Times did not mention the festival, and it never referred to it with enthusiasm," notes Professor Ronald Hutton in his book The Stations of the Sun. "To the fashionable world, it was increasingly an anachronism and a bore."

Popular allegiance switched to Twelfth Night, when crowds would gather to admire the elaborate cakes displayed in bakers' windows. This harmless pastime was not without its risks, because street urchins were prone to nail observers' tailcoats and petticoats to the shop window frames. So much for Quality Street.

After centuries of restraint, you suddenly encounter a room stuffed to bursting. As everyone knows, the bloated monster that is the modern Christmas arrived with those masters of excess, the Victorians. They brought us Christmas cards (1843), tinsel, the boom in Christmas toys and Tiny Tim. They scoffed gargantuan turkeys (more easily transportable with the new railways). They revived the carol and popularised the Christmas tree, though this moulting alien was introduced by George III's German wife Queen Charlotte.

Another deeply suspect continental import is Santa Claus, aka St Nicholas. Taken to America by Dutch settlers, the modern Santa was invented by the poet Clement Clarke Moore in 1822: "He was dressed all in fur from his head to his foot/ And his clothes were all blacked with ashes and soot."

The traditional yuletide figure in Britain was Father Christmas, possibly derived from the Norse god Odin. For many years, Messrs Claus and Christmas worked in parallel, but Santa made a more-or-less successful take-over bid in the 20th century.

After being curbed by the Second World War, the accumulation of Christmas ephemera began anew in the Fifties. Equipped with paper-chains and a trifle dusted with hundreds and thousands, the Geffrye's room depicting this decade will prompt bittersweet memories for visitors of a certain age. From here on, the Geffrye's rooms get progressively more garish. You can imagine what the Seventies, the decade that taste forgot, made of Christmas.

Then, right at the end, a surprise. The Geffrye's excellent exhibition concludes with a modern minimalist Christmas. This apparent oxymoron has already been adopted by certain style leaders. A couple of years ago, the window dressers at Harvey Nicks came up with a Christmas tree in the form of an aluminium stepladder supporting a plum pud. As we've seen, when fashion dictates it is impossible to resist. Bye-bye Norwegian spruce, hello stepladder.