Dagenham exhibition looks back at Christmas origins

A treasure trove of Christmas mementos is shedding sparkling lights on the ways families have enjoyed the festive season since Victorian times.

A new Dagenham exhibition takes a peek at Christmas festivities with cards and publications, photographs and 20th century archive footage of celebrations in London and the Big Apple.

The exhibition features silent newsreels and colour documentaries including wartime footage of the Christmas rush at Selfridges, children making yuletide puddings at Barnardo’s children’s home in Barking and Santa handing out gifts to young ladies in skimpy outfits in New York.

Entitled Making A Modern Christmas, the exhibition looks back at the origins of Christmas in Victorian England and the Santa tradition in the US with vintage material on display at Valence House history museum.

It features a rare copy of the Cassell’s Family Magazine published in December 1882, which gives facts on frost and snow and festive tips including a recipe to make a game pie without game.

Also on display are “romantic” Christmas cards from the beginning of the 20th century adorned with floral designs that revellers sent their lovers and close relatives.

The exhibition also features a series of Sixties festive cards with images of Dagenham in Victorian times.

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Curator Katharine Allen, 23, explained how the Victorians had laid the foundations for Christmas traditions including feasting and decorations.

She said Queen Victoria and her consort Albert helped to establish Christmas, with a popular drawing of the Royal family around the Christmas tree published in the Illustrated London news in 1848.

She said: “The exhibition shows how we have come to celebrate Christmas today.

“I am sure this will be of interest to people who live in Barking and Dagenham.”

Ms Allen also sought to dispel the myth that Santa was a Coca-Cola invention, saying that contrary to popular belief, the soft drink giant’s Thirties adverts with the red Santa were not the first incarnations of Father Christmas.

The exhibition reproduces an 1823 poem called A Visit from St Nicholas attributed to US writer Clement Clark Moore, which describes Santa leaving presents in a house through a chimney and then departing in his air-borne sleigh pulled by reindeer.

The curator added that the modern Father Christmas was a mixture of the Dutch St Nicholas, who typically placed presents by the fireplace and the British Santa, a jolly figure who goes round causing a bit of mischief.

The exhibition features a 1941 Christmas menu with chicken, potatoes and sprouts and mince pies, which shows how little festive dinners have changed since the war.

It also reveals how Christmas festivities took a hit during the Second World War, as limited resources were focused on defeating the Nazis.

Exhibits show how alternative recipes of mock gooses made with apples, potatoes and cheese were produced and families were given tips on making their own tree with pieces of wood as pine tree supplies dried up.

The curator revealed that tree decorations were by and large a German tradition. At first, they consisted of handmade ornaments and sweets.

Presents were hung on the Christmas tree and as they gained popularity ended up under it.

The free exhibition is on at the Becontree Avenue museum until February 4. For opening times, call 020 8227 2034.