“Christmas, I always look upon as a most dear happy time, also for Albert, who enjoyed it naturally still more in his happy home, which mine, certainly, as a child, was not. It is a pleasure to have this blessed festival associated with one’s happiest days. The very smell of the Christmas Trees of pleasant memories.”
Entry from Queen Victoria’s journal on 24 December 1841
Christmas at the V&A this year started in February. No, really. It was then that teams from all over the organisation joined together to discuss celebrating Victorian Christmas traditions. Needless to say, it was hard to get into the festive spirit as the seasons drew on into summer, but we had plenty of planning to do!
For many people, the decorating of the Christmas tree signals the start of the holiday season, and so for the V&A team that was the first port of call. We knew we wanted to express the tradition and heritage of the Museums as well as the traditions made famous by our namesakes, Victoria and Albert, but respond to the Museum’s growing Collection of contemporary art and design. The result were two wrought iron Christmas trees, created by East-London designers Studio Xag. Inspired by both the Museum of Childhood’s cage-like structure and the metalwork found in the William Morris Gallery at South Kensington, they fashioned towering pyramids intricately patterned and giving a lace-like quality to the sturdy frame. Although similar in appearance, both trees are uniquely decorated, bringing to life the nuances of Victorian Christmases past.
Originally, trees would be decorated with oranges stuck with cloves, cinnamon sticks and pine cones. Sometimes the nut would be removed from a walnut shell and replaced by a small gift or sweet before being hung on a tree. On our tree at the Museum of Childhood, we have nutcrackers, rocking horses and popcorn strung between the golden walnuts and red-ripe berries for a traditional feel with a contemporary twist. As you gaze up at the towering tree, glowing with light, and adorned with toys and trinkets of the season, you may even spot a moving train or two whirring around the tree’s specially designed tracks!
To celebrate the season, our Curators wanted to give a gift of their own, and explore our Collections to uncover some of our pieces usually kept in the archives and stores. At both Museums a trail is available to take you around the galleries to seek out 12 Christmas objects through a piece of origami, designed to embody the playful cheer of Christmas.
At the Museum of Childhood, we have over 1000 Christmas objects in our Collection, ranging from Children’s fancy dress from the 1920s to 1960s Children’s Christmas books but it’s the very spirit of Christmas gift-giving that our Curator’s wanted to celebrate in their seasonal display. Gift-giving, a practice which expanded enormously in Britain in the Victorian age, and has continued to grow all around the world ever since, and many of our objects we know to be gifts from Christmases past. Objects selected for the display represent a wide range of items and dates, from the 19th century to the present day. Here are just three stories from the display, Unwrapping the Museum to get you feeling cheerful:
Blackie was given as a Christmas present two years in a row: in 1910 and again in 1911. His first owner found him too scary, so he was returned to the shop and given to a different child the next year, who loved him so much his fur has worn away from where he’s been held
This delicate pair of children’s silk slippers was given to Sidney Arthur Leleux for Christmas in 1938, but he wasn’t actually born six months later! The gift tag with the slippers reads “Greetings to Mummy (to be) from Daddy (to be)”
This toy gun uses a strong spring to shoot hard, red plastic balls with a lot of force. Charles Kirke was given it by his mother for Christmas 1960. It proved an inspiring gift – he later joined the army
Now, having launched our Christmas season at both South Kensington and Bethnal Green sites, we’re feeling festive with music performances, seasonal activities for the family and workshops to inspire you to make and create. Find out more by visiting vam.ac.uk/christmas
To discover more about both Museum’s objects, follow us on social media or track the festive season using #vamXmas.
A very Merry Christmas to you!