An Art Deco Christmas
by Lisa De Silva
Make this festive period one to remember and embrace an Art Deco Christmas. Vintage décor, a Christmas Eve cocktail party and a traditional family roast tick all the boxes for the most magical time of the year.
Christmas has been celebrated for over two millennia with both religious and secular traditions, but it wasn’t until the Roaring Twenties and Thirties that our modern day Christmas conventions were refined and standardised. This period, commonly referred to as Art Deco, was often festive and decadent as a matter of course and nowhere was this more apparent than during the Christmas season.
Many of our modern day Christmas customs emerged during the Art Deco years. In fact, the only real difference is that in those days Christmas was short and sweet, instead of the three month onslaught we face today. Here we take a closer look at how Christmas was celebrated during this time.
THE CHRISTMAS TREE
The custom of the Christmas tree was first brought to the UK during the late 19th century, when Prince Albert imported the German tradition of the decorated tree. By the Art Deco period, artificial trees were all the rage and those who could afford it would buy a feather tree. Originally made in Germany around 1845, these were made from green dyed goose feathers arranged into pine needles and attached to wire branches, which were secured to a central dowel, acting as the trunk. All the best department stores sold these modern trees in a range of sizes and colours. For those of lesser means, a chopped tree from the garden or local woods would be brought into the home for decoration.
One of the most notable trends of this time was the introduction of electric lights for the Christmas tree, as an alternative to candles which had previously been used (despite the obvious fire risk!). For many, the main tree decorations were paper chains, but glass ornaments imported from Germany were also popular among the more wealthy. However, the growth of Woolworths in the UK soon brought this style of decoration to the masses, by reducing the price from five shillings to just one old penny per bauble.
It was during this period that the ‘finial bauble’ popularised by Woolworths, became a must-have item for the top of the tree. This was a colourful glass bauble that clipped over the top branch of the tree with a slot on top for a candle. Elaborate paper decorations which folded out to form bells, stars or trees were also fashionable and stores also sold tinsel by the length to help ramp up the festive spirit.
During the 1930s, nativity sets made from hand painted and glazed chalkware were also in demand. These generally comprised of eight figurines and a plywood stable, with a full set costing the equivalent of £12.60 today. However, unlike today, the tree and decorations were not normally put up until Christmas Eve, giving the children a magical surprise on Christmas morning.
CHRISTMAS CARDS AND PRESENTS
The first commercial Christmas card was devised by Sir Henry Cole in 1843 and by the 1880s, the Post Office was already advising people to ‘post early for Christmas.’ During the Art Deco period, hand-made cards were popular, made from foil and ribbon. Owing to their fragility and often unusual shapes and sizes, most were hand delivered often with a gift of Christmas cookies.
The Christmas stocking tradition which really took hold in the early 20th century, was adapted from the Saint Nicolas Day custom of leaving out shoes in the hope of receiving gifts for good behaviour. The tradition evolved with children leaving stockings at the end of their beds and those who were lucky enough, would find a selection of gifts inside on Christmas morning, which might include an apple, an orange, a soft cuddly toy, sweets and nuts.
For adults, the emphasis was on sensible gifts for the home. So, items such as cooking utensils, vacuum cleaners or a new rug, were favourite presents. As one piece of advice urged, “Give a woman something serviceable to wear or something she can use in her home and you gladden her heart. Give a man something for his auto, or something he can wear besides neckties and you win his thanks.” Not sure how well a new saucepan as a gift would go down in the 21st century!
For modern young couples, there was a trend to throw an annual cocktail party on Christmas Eve to impress friends with an array of canapés, decorations and a fashionable artificial tree. For families, the emphasis was on the big day itself. Presents were opened in the morning and lunch put in the oven to cook, while the family went to church. The trend for Christmas turkey did not take hold until after the Second World War and those that could afford it, would eat goose or beef served with home grown vegetables, followed by plum pudding and mince pies.
After lunch, there was an afternoon walk, a snooze for the parents, followed by a carol service. During the evening, party games were played, a particular favourite being Blind Man’s Buff and there was Christmas cake for tea. From 1932, the King began his Christmas broadcast and for those families with a wireless, this was an important part of the day, in a similar way that the Queen’s Speech is today. On Boxing Day, many families visited relatives, enjoying eating leftovers with a glass of sherry, another tradition which has not really changed all that much over the decades.
So however you choose to spend the day, here’s to a vintage Christmas and a Happy New Year!