With only two weekends of the Beamish Christmas celebrations left, I though it was time to share some of background to what is going on at the Museum. Following in the traditional of Charles Dickens we are sharing with you Christmases past, actually three different periods of history. The Georgian era, that focuses on Twelfth Night celebrations at Pockerley Old Hall, the late Victorian era at Home Farm and the Edwardian era in the Town and Pit Village.
Edwardian Christmas celebrations ranged from simple and home-made, seen by candle and oil lamp, to the middle and upper classes celebrations with electric lighting with shop bought decorations and gifts. Christmas was growing into a commercial celebration though its roots go back to the much older traditions and customs from feudal society.
It was Prince Albert’s enthusiasm for Christmas that popularised the celebration through the press. With early trees being placed in pots on tables with presents left unwrapped under the tree or on the tree with little tags to identify the recipients, Miss Smith in the Ravensworth Terrace still has a small tree in a pot. By the 1880s the Norway Spruce was being used as a large floor standing tree. Popular authors of the day such as Charles Dickens idealised these Christmas celebrations.
Decorations were often homemade. Paper chains and greenery were used to decorate many homes and businesses. The quantity and quality of decorations was very different between the wealth of for example the Dentist in the town to the pit village cottages. The Dentist has electric lighting and a floor standing Christmas tree, with all the trimmings of shop bought toys. The pit village families have a small table top tree, with homemade decorations and gifts. They rely on oil lamps and candles for light, you can understand why people had to make the most of the day-light hours!
Hedworth Lane Infants School, Boldon Colliery, 1905. Hanging from the ceiling are bunches of mistletoe and at the back of the hall, left of the rocking horse, is a wreath ready to hang up.
Illuminations were in their infancy during the Edwardian period, with not everywhere having access to electricity. The famous Blackpool Illuminations begin in 1879, before even Edison’s electric light bulb was invented. By 1912 the first of the modern style displays was opened with ‘festoons of garland lamps’ using 10,000 bulbs opened by Princess Louise. This proved so popular that it has continued ever since. The display in the Beamish town street may appear small and unimpressive to modern eyes, but with the use of electric bulbs still being an exciting experience, the display would have been very impressive and exciting to the Edwardian eye. The Masonic Hall, when in its original location in Sunderland, won awards for its illuminations for Queen Victoria’s Diamond Jubilee.
Father Christmas was a universal figure by 1910, in his red suite. Though before this time Father Christmas could be seen in a blue, green or red outfit as he is a merging of two figures, Father Christmas and St Nicholas.
This 1910 Christmas card show a very modern Father Christmas, in his red outfit, driving a car and even uses the work xmas. Though many people think this is a modern term its use dates back to the early 1800s.
There were a number of other traditions that still continue today, which were well established even by the Edwardian era. Christmas cards were first commercially produced in 1843 by Henry Cole and in the 1870s cheap rate postage led to a dramatic increase in the sending of cards, so during the Edwardian period card giving was commonplace, if you are visiting Beamish over the Christmas season wy not have a go at making cards in the Town or Pit Village. Carols too had gained popularity in the mid 1800s and were widespread by the Edwardian period.
Between 1900 and 1920 Christmas became increasingly commercial; there was a dramatic increase in the giving of gifts to children and Christmas trees. The ‘Book of the Home’ explains how to decorate a Christmas tree in the early 1900s, with bon-bons, toys, dolls and baskets of sweets, brightly decorated and glittering. Christmas stockings first appears in the mid-1800s as an American adaptation of a Dutch tradition, with stockings being hung on the bed or hearth. In 1881 one magazine describes a little boys stocking as having; 2 bags of sweets, pocket knife, oranges, almonds, raisin and 2 jockey’s caps.
A 1913 Father Christmas on his was to visit a local infants school somewhere in the north east, this image is from the Beamish photo archive.