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How our ancestors decorated their homes for Christmas

Decking the halls

Ruth A Symes explored how our ancestors decorated for Christmas, from mistletoe to paper chains in an archived article from Discover Your Ancestors

Greenery and fruit, sparkle and snow, colourfully dressed tables and walls inscribed with Yuletide mottos – Christmases past were decorated using much the same general combination of ideas as Christmases today. But the specifics of the way our ancestors decorated their homes at any given time in the past depended not only on tradition, but also on what was currently most novel and up-to-date.

In the 18th and early 19th centuries, domestic and church decorations at Christmas tended to be simple and worked on the principle of bringing something of the outside world indoors. Our ancestors would decorate their lamps, candles and tables, very shortly before Christmas Day, with material such as holly, ivy, mistletoe and berries collected from hedges and winter gardens. The candles (attached to the greenery with wax or pins) would be lit only on Christmas Eve to minimise the danger of fire hazard. The Rev James Woodforde, who kept a diary from the mid-18th century onwards, recorded that he filled his house with holly and lit a great wax candle especially for Christmas. Fruit and vegetables, imported from overseas, or newly-grown in British hothouses, were considered decorations in and of themselves. The Market Post of December 25th 1848 noted that in Covent Garden that Xmas season, the supply of pineapples, apples, pears, hothouse grapes, foreign grapes, walnuts, lemons and oranges was "seasonally good and sold readily".

A typical home at Christmas in the mid-Victorian period, would have been decorated to draw the eye towards the fireplace, which would have been ablaze with colour and sparkle. The popular installation of a Christmas tree in the domestic environment was widely attributed to a widely publicised etching of the Royal family at Christmas, complete with a tree (decorated with tinsel made from real shavings of silver) in the London Illustrated News of 1848. Mottoes or biblical quotations, with the individual letters cut out from paper and decorated with coloured rice or cotton wadding to imitate snow were often strung across the walls.

Trees were decorated with ornaments made from lace, paper, scraps of newspaper and magazine illustrations. Spurred on by the royal endorsement of Christmas, our Victorian ancestors proceeded to go decoration-crazy as the century progressed. As the Supplement to the Sheffield and Rotherham Independent of Saturday 24 December 24 1881 commented, "[Christmas decorations] are no longer hung around a room haphazard – as pineapples, apples, holly bough here, a bunch of berries there, a trail of ivy elsewhere. They are carefully planned and artistically constructed."

--- Reproduced with kind permission of Discover Your Ancestors Online Periodical ---

Read the entire article for free on the Discover Your Ancestors site 

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