Destinations

A Time Traveller's Christmas

From Victorian festive splendour to homemade gifts on the Home Front, Christmases past burst into life at Beamish living museum, County Durham.
See article

The soldier opposite me is slumped in an armchair, his woollen stockings drying on the range behind. He’s listening, eyes half shut, to the strains of Silent Night coming from a crackly wireless. A meagre tree sits in the corner of the room and the few angel decorations adorning the windows and walls are all cut from old newspapers. It’ll be dark soon and flakes of snow are already beginning to settle and smear the glass. He stirs, rubs his hands together and tops up the fire with coal.

“Best be getting warm,” he tells me. “We’ll be back out there soon enough.”

Such is the life of a Home Guardsman, Christmas 1940. Weary, wet and worried about the future. Out there the war is in full swing. The Blitz is a nightly horror show, Coventry has been levelled and the country is gripped with the very real fear of impending German invasion. I pull my chair closer to the fire’s heat. The world suddenly feels a very different place to how it did twenty minutes ago.

This is the magic of Beamish. It may not be actual time travel, but this vast, incredible open-air museum is as close as you’re likely to get.

It’s early December and I’m in one of its atmospheric 1940s houses, Home Farm, higher up on the edges of the 350-acre site located in rolling countryside near Stanley in County Durham. I’m here to try and get a feel for the Christmases of our past, to experience what it was like at different points in British history and perhaps learn a little about how the traditions and spirit from previous times live on in our seasonal celebrations today. And there’s no better place on earth to do that than here.

The man in the Home Guard uniform is actually Seb, one of the costumed characters who inhabit – I’m tempted to write haunt – the museum’s many houses, shops, farms and businesses, bringing that deeper, and sometimes almost disconcerting level of authenticity as they go about their lives. But they’re also only too happy to break character and bring you up to speed on the time they represent.

“People talk about an austerity Christmas now,” he explains. “But the 1940s was a different level.” He tells me that rationing was biting hard. There would have been no turkey and only a few cuts of saved meat if you were lucky. With sugar, margarine and suet scarce and imported fruits a thing of the past, Christmas dinners would have been improvised affairs. “Alcohol was prohibitively expensive too,” he says. “And there were no church bells rung as that was the signal for an invasion.”

Christmas at war

On a side table by the wall a simple, sparse selection of presents reflects the times: dominoes, a cup and ball game, a pack of playing cards and cigarettes. The cards look old and frayed, like an older pack has been re-wrapped and given anew. The recycling of presents wasn’t unusual in the 1940s. Gift giving was subdued for a number of reasons; many had family away from home and weren’t in the mood to be overly joyous. Money was tight too and the government was encouraging people to spend the little they had either on things that could be turned to use on the land or in the home, or on war bonds to help the war effort.

“It’s a very different picture to Christmas 1939.” Says Seb. 

When it was still pretty much a proxy war and rationing hadn’t kicked in. People were only too aware of what was coming, so they really made an effort. They pushed the boat out and spent big on food, presents and celebrations. Restaurants and hotels reported record bookings. People were determined to make it a blow-out Christmas to remember.

Sitting by the warmth of the little fire, such extravagance feels a long way away. But I imagine that if you had your family safe around you and there was even a little chance of some peace, it would feel like the best present you could hope for. It makes me realise how much we probably don’t need. And Seb agrees.

“Absolutely.” He says. “Mostly it was the need for people to get together and feel normal with everything going on and the insecurity of what might happen. So they made an effort in any way they could: adapting recipes, recycling presents, making their own decorations, salvaging branches for a tree. People just wanted to come together and celebrate the season as they always had with friends and family. That was the greatest present.”

These traditions and celebrations – presents, trees and decorations – were clearly hard-wired into our idea of a proper Christmas in 1940, just as they are today. Yet much of what makes up this seasonal scene had only come into the picture a hundred years earlier, and is actually German in origin.

Following their marriage in 1840, Queen Victoria and Prince Albert introduced Britain to new ways of celebrating Christmas. As well as sending cards, the Prince’s Germanic traditions of bringing a tree into the home and furnishing it with candles, crackers containing sweets, fruit, decorations and gifts were taken on by the royal household. Our idea of a traditional Christmas was born.

By the late Victorian and the Edwardian period, this had blossomed into a festive spectacular and one I’d witnessed earlier after arriving in Beamish’s main street. Among all of this museum’s impressive sights, the completely reconstructed market town with its cobbled roads, buildings, houses, shops and working historic trams and buses is surely the most breath-taking. 

Imagine a fully functioning film set alive with actors going about their business. Walking into this living diorama of sights, sounds and smells, frozen in time in the early 1900s, is mind-blowing. 

First an old tram packed with people had rung its bell behind me before squeaking off down the street. Then a horse-drawn wagon carting firewood had come up the other way, followed by two ladies carrying baskets of freshly baked biscuits. I strolled along a handsome row of Victorian terraced houses known as Ravensworth Terrace, saved from destruction and relocated to Beamish in their entirety from Gateshead. Passing the dentist’s house – or the surgery of “Mr. J. Jones”, as the nameplate outside proudly proclaimed – the door was opened and a maid hurried through with a bucket of coal. I followed her inside to find the proprietor himself dressed smartly in black, standing in a front room filled with festive cheer.

“Season’s greetings, sir.” He said. “Welcome to Christmas Past.” If Jonathan looked happy, he had good reason. By the Edwardian period Christmas had really taken off, especially for the well-to-do in town. Dentists could earn 15 pounds a week and his room reflected the status: best china in fine display cabinets, lights in cut-glass shades twinkling across floral wallpaper. There was a grandfather clock and mantelpiece covered in holly. Jonathan stood by a table filled with food – Christmas puddings, ginger cakes, mince pies, turkey – and in front of a grand tree festooned with crocheted stars, crackers, candles and ribbons. It was a scene straight from Charles Dickens’ A Christmas Carol.

“That book actually did a lot to cement the idea of Christmas in the late-Victorian and Edwardian mind,” Jonathan explained. “Especially the idea of Christmas spirit.” He told me that as well as the grandeur of the gifts, décor and food, the notion of being generous and kind at Christmas time was very much part of this period too, thanks in part to the enormous popularity of Dickens’ classic 1843 morality tale of Ebenezer Scrooge and his visitations from the ghosts of past and future.

Workers at Christmas

Jonathan also revealed that it was during this time that the festive season really started to shift in focus towards youngsters. Communities would come together to celebrate and children were centre-stage. Shops and stores cashed in on the enormous potential this created among an increasingly affluent middle class. Back outside on the street again, I could see what he meant. I passed tram-poles and streetlights decorated with greenery and ribbon. There were carol singers and Salvation Army collectors outside the co-op store and visitors emerging from the traditional sweet shop clutching bags brimming with cinder toffee and bon-bons. In the town’s newspaper branch office and print shop beautiful Christmas cards were being made by hand. Every store window displayed toys: wooden trains, farms and Noah’s Ark sets.

Further on I resisted the noise, warmth and liquid temptations of the pub – The Sun Inn – but was powerless against the aromas drifting out of Herron’s Bakery. There fresh bread, biscuits and cakes were being cooked in Edwardian ovens to traditional recipes. I picked up a couple of Christmas tree cookies and wandered down to the fairground and skating ring on the edge of town to watch kids riding a coal-powered carousel and flying over the ice in scarves and hats. Not for the first time, I could half picture myself in a scene from a hundred years ago, until I was shaken from the daydream by an excited voice: “Mummy! Mummy! Can we go and see Santa now?”

That unmistakable red-suited icon of Christmas was shaped in this period too. I say shaped because Santa was actually a blend of two existing characters: the traditional folkloric Father Christmas who was associated with midwinter feasting and merrymaking in England for centuries, and a Christian saint, St Nicholas, the gift-giving kind-hearted monk who tended to the poor and needy. Brought together – and renamed after a Dutch play on St Nicholas’ name: Saint Nicholas, Sainta Niklaas, Santa Klaas – they created a perfect figurehead for the season: jovial, joyous and universally recognisable.

Jumping aboard a passing bus, I was whisked off to see the big man himself. His grotto was housed in the old engine sheds known as Pockerley Wagonway, part of the 1820s landscape at the southeast corner of the site that also includes a church and Georgian farmhouse and gardens. I arrived in time to see a classic scene: an ancient steam wagon and precursor to the railway age, “Puffing Billy”, heaving its way up from Beamish’s painstakingly recreated Pit Village down the hill. Snow lay on the ground and men in smocks and hats huddled around glowing braziers; among trees a herd of Santa’s reindeer looked decidedly more comfortable with the temperature.

Inside, Father Christmas was a flashback to the Victorian version, sitting beside a fire and a sparkling spruce tree in his blue suit with fur edging. But he still had a tell-tale grin under that vast beard. “And what would you like for Christmas?” He asked.

“A decent pint wouldn’t go amiss.” I confessed.

“Aha! Well you’re in luck! The Sun Inn is just back there in the 1900s town and it serves the best beer in county.”

Inside Beamish shops

And so it is that after swinging by the Georgian farm to see its cooking demonstration, the humble houses of the Pit Village and the home fires of Seb’s 1940s house, I’m ending my trip here – in a turn-of-the-century Bishop Auckland pub rebuilt on Beamish’s street in 1985. Santa’s recommendation proves great; this is a snapshot of Christmas close to my heart.

Outside I can hear the carollers belting out hymns in the soft-falling snow; in here the Yuletide logs are crackling in the grate, the panelled walls are ringing with laughter and the beer is fresh and delicious. In fact, all the ales here are brewed only a few hundred yards away in a microbrewery housed in Best Western Beamish Hall Hotel, right next to the museum site.

I try glasses of the Bobby Dazzler and the Bell Tower while flicking through my camera, looking at my photographs from the day. Each frames a story not just of this museum and the astounding moments in time it preserves but of this most beloved of seasons. They reveal how and why the Christmas we hold dear came to exist. Perhaps most importantly though, they show that despite changing tastes and traditions, through good times and bad, the fundaments of Christmas have actually remained the same. I think of something Seb said to me about the war: “People just wanted to come together and celebrate the season as they always had with friends and family. That was the greatest present.”


CREATE YOUR OWN STORY

Beamish Hall Hotel, BW Premier Collection – Beamish, County Durham, DH9 0YB – +44 (0) 844 387 6310 – bestwestern.co.uk

Breath-taking period features in a country house hotel dating back to the thirteenth-century with Georgian exterior, 24-acre gardens, pub, restaurant and microbrewery.

Beamish open-air museum – +44 (0) 191 370 4000 – beamish.org.uk

fin
Share this article

Where did this all happen?

Explore articles in other categories