The Geffrye Museum in east London is a hidden gem, a showcase for the changing styles of living rooms in English middle-class homes. Visitors walk through time, via the 11 living rooms in its permanent exhibition that show everyday interiors dating from 1600 to the present.
Visiting is always a treat, but Christmas is the very best time to go. From Tuesday until early January the Geffrye's rooms will have a festive air, as the staff put up accurate period decorations and display the Christmas food of the time.
There's also a programme of events, focusing on celebrating a Victorian Christmas, including card-making workshops and a talk about 19th-century Christmas food.
The Geffrye's deputy director, Christine Lalumia, is an art historian who, after 18 years at the museum, has become an expert in the evolution of Christmas in England. “Christmas as a celebration can be viewed almost as a social phenomenon,” she says. “Some generations have emphasised the religious aspect; others have played it down. It means many things to many people. At some points, food will be extraordinarily special; at others it will be just a throwaway.”
Lalumia says the staff never impose their own sense of Christmas jollity and colour where it didn't exist – during much of English history, Christmas was a subdued affair. Not so for the late Tudors and Stuarts, who celebrated hard, from Christmas day to Epiphany, in a riot of adults-only feasting, bawdy dancing and games. New Year's Day was the highpoint of the festival. Food historian Kate Colquhoun says: “There are account books from Tudor manors showing what was laid in for the 12 days of Christmas ... though the highly spiced meat and fruit dishes were luxury winter foods, not simply Christmas dishes.”
So the museum's first room, “A Hall in 1630”, is decorated with evergreens (a pagan symbol of hope and fertility that early Christians adoped to symbolise everlasting life). And the table is heaped with colourful sweet and savoury dishes, forming the second course of the New Year banquet.
There is perfectly reproduced crystallised fruit and endearingly, wonkily reproduced walnuts and eggs and bacon. It turns out to be deliberate: “Tudors just loved visual games with food – they loved making one thing look like another thing,” Lalumia says. The walnuts and eggs and bacon are in fact very accurate modern reproductions of the fake food that Tudors loved to display, made using sugar paste (or sugar plate as it was then called).
Sugar was very expensive in 1630, and a huge treat reserved for special occasions. By the end of the 17th century, sugar was far cheaper, and the mixed sweet and savoury course shown in this room became the “dessert” course we still have, with no savoury component.
Oliver Cromwell's Puritan government banned Christmas by an act of parliament in 1647. Lalumia has “never believed for a second that people ever stopped celebrating at home”. Although the ban ended in 1660, from the late 17th century onwards, Christmas went out of fashion. In the 1695 room there are still simple decorations, and anchovies and olives to eat that would have been offered to guests along with punch.
But by 1745, an early Georgian parlour is decorated with only a garland and a few sprigs of evergreen. The only bright colours in the room are two jellies in tall glasses – one orange and one yellow – that have been offered, along with a glass of wine, to a guest who has arrived too late for supper. By the end of the 18th century, there's no hint of Christmas as we know it, although the table is set for a dinner of “rost [sic] beef and plum pudding”, served together – plum pudding only became a separate course from the mid-19th century.
Beef was widely served by the middle classes as the central dish of the Christmas dinner until well into the 19th century. (Turkeys had been available in England since Tudor times, but the habit of eating turkey dinner on Christmas day took hold only once the railways were built, and allowed easy transportation of these big birds for large families.)
From the 1830s room onwards, the colour and volume of decorations return, topped off by a magnificent centrepiece Twelfth Night cake, and from then on Christmas was “absolutely a full-on Christian festival”, according to Lalumia.
It also became the Christmas we still celebrate today. The custom of a family Christmas tree really took off after the royal family was pictured around one in 1848.
Many of the Christmas rooms at the Geffrye Museum look incredibly attractive, and it's hard to pick a favourite. Even the experts find it hard to say which historical period boasted the best Christmas celebrations and food.
Colquhoun, who will be speaking about Victorian food at the museum on December 4, says: “The Middle Ages were another high point – with the festivities culminating on Twelfth Night, with boar's head and brawn, mince pies, roaring fires in the great halls. In an age before freezers and microwaves, before fridges and processed foods, the significance of a surfeit of meaty richness in the middle of sterile winter cannot be over-emphasised.”
Meanwhile, Lalumia says she would either “snuggle in with the Edwardians, who celebrated with joy and gusto just before the real consumer explosions of the later 20th century” or “travel back to the late 16th century, which had such an emphasis on sharing and goodwill. I love that period's strong links between Christmas and nature.
“I love elements of winter solstice, fighting off the dark and cold and hunger with fire and light and feasting and dancing.”
The Geffrye Museum, 136 Kingsland Road, London E2. Tel: 0207-739-9893. Admission free.
Kate Colquhoun will be talking about Victorian food as part of the museum's family evening ‘Find Your Festive Spirit', with carols and a Christmas-card making workshop. Thursday December 4, admission free.
Full details at www.geffrye-museum.org.uk
杰夫瑞博物馆的副馆长克莉斯汀•拉鲁米亚(Christine Lalumia)是一位艺术史学家，18年的博物馆工作生涯，令她成为英国圣诞历史沿革的专家。“圣诞庆典几乎可视为一种社会现象，”她说，“某些时代强 调宗教方面的意义；其它的则更世俗化。它对不同的人有着不同的意义。某些观点认为，圣诞食品有着超乎寻常的特殊性，另一些则认为可有可无。”
拉鲁米亚表示，工作人员绝不凭空掺杂个人对圣诞节喜庆和多彩的感受——在英国的大部分历史中，圣诞节是一个有节制的事件，不像后来的都铎时代和斯图 亚特时代那样狂欢，当时的圣诞节到主显节期间，人们沉浸在一场少儿不宜的欢宴中，其中充斥着艳舞和暧昧的游戏。元旦是节日的高潮。食品历史学家凯特•科洪 (Kate Colquhoun)称：“都铎时代庄园的账本显示了在长达12天的圣诞节期间所需的食品……尽管加了大量香料的肉类和水果盘并不仅仅是圣诞大餐，也是整 个冬季的奢侈食品。”
这里有晶莹剔透的水果，复制得相当完美，还有核桃，鸡蛋还有熏肉，它们的复制手法惹人喜爱但却不太靠谱。而这些都是刻意所为：“都铎时代，人们钟爱 在食物上玩视觉游戏――他们喜欢把一样东西做得看上去像另一东西，”拉鲁米亚说。实际上核桃、鸡蛋还有熏肉都是现代复制品，它们非常精确地模仿了都铎时代 人们喜爱陈列的假食物，那是用糖浆（当时称为糖盘）制成的。
奥利弗•克伦威尔(Oliver Cromwell)的清教徒政府在1647年通过一项国会法令，明令禁止圣诞节。拉鲁米亚“从来不相信，人们曾经停止在家里庆祝圣诞”。尽管禁令在 1660年取消，但自17世纪末以后，圣诞节就不再流行。在1695年的房间里，仍保留了简单的装饰，还有凤尾鱼和橄榄，与潘趣酒一起用来招待客人。
圣诞是对温暖和快乐的庆祝而到了1745年，早期乔治时代的前厅仅用花环和一些常青树枝装饰。房间里唯一的亮色是两只高脚玻璃杯中的果冻（一个橙色，一个黄色），与 红酒一道用来招待没有赶上晚餐的客人。到18世纪末，据我们所知已经没有任何圣诞的迹象，尽管晚餐餐桌上还有一道“烤牛肉和梅子布丁”——梅子布丁直到 19世纪中叶才成为一道单独的圣诞菜。