Christmas past at the Red House!
"Deck the halls with boughs of holly" is how the song goes and at the Red House Museum in Gomersal did just that in 2008, conjuring up the atmosphere of a West Riding Christmas 200 years ago! And, as we found out, we could all learn a thing or two...
Helga and one of the Red House garlands
"We've got lots of evergreens that have been picked from the garden: holly, laurel, ivy and a lot of rosemary," explains Helga Hughes at the Red House. All around us is the hustle and bustle of pre-Christmas preparations as the staff there do their bit to decorate it in the style of Christmas 200 years ago. She explains: "The idea behind this is very ancient really - the idea of signs of spring, growth and life. It's a dead time outside but these things are beautiful and fresh and give a sign of everlasting life, re-growth and continuity." And she's certainly not wrong! With grey skies above Gomersal and ice on the ground - the beautiful garlands being put up in the entrance hall at the Red House do serve as a reminder that winter won't last forever!
The Kissing Bough at Red House
It's probably not the first time the house - famous for its links with the Bronte sisters - will have seen such activity either. In fact, two centuries ago in houses like this across the West Riding of Yorkshire evergreen decorations were a sure sign that Christmas was on its way. As the staff carefully sculpt and weave together these different branches, Helga reminds us that tinsel and plastic baubles weren't always the traditional way to mark the festive season: "What used to happen was that all the ladies of the house - and the gentlemen as well - would get holly and create garlands from them and string them around the walls and across the landings. They'd be a focal point, really. They didn't have a tree in pre-Victorian times but they did have these beautiful evergreens."
They really make an impact, too! There's a huge garland strung across the landing at Red House which you see as soon as you step in from the cold - a 'kissing bough' made of mistletoe and apples with candles on top for good measure - and there are loads more to see too. Helga explains they're keeping true to how the house might have appeared at Christmas time in the early 19th century - perhaps exactly 200 years ago, in 1808: "We don't know exactly where they would have had evergreen garlands of some kind in the house, but in the 19th century the hallway was the point of entry so you tried to make that into something quite splendid. A couple of other rooms would have some nice green decorations as well. In the servants' area, the kitchen and the scullery, they would have had evergreen too. They wouldn't have gone to the trouble of making garlands like this, but certainly every jug would have had pieces of holly sprouting out of it and the window sills would have been covered in little sprigs of holly. There's a big garden here and it would have been from there, but if you didn't have a big garden there was always woodland. People went out and they gathered it. Even if they just spread it on the mantlepiece it made a huge difference, you don't have to create a fancy garland."
Working on the Red House garlands
The fact that the festive focus of Red House is these garlands and not a Christmas tree may come as a surprise, but Helga's quick to emphasise they really are keeping true to the spirit of the times: "From the 1840s onwards, Christmas started to take on the look we know today. Prior to that there would have been evergreen decorations, feasting and gift-giving but a lot of the trappings of the Christmas of today wouldn't have been around. Printed Christmas cards were invented in the 1840s, the Christmas tree started to become popular in the 1840s as well...It didn't become popular until after Victoria and Albert started to portray themselves with a Christmas tree and the family around it. It was then that sort of image took off in a BIG way!"
As work goes on around us at Red House to create what Helga calls 'real' decorations from natural materials, perhaps there's a message for us in the 21st century? After all, these decorations tick all those environmentally-friendly boxes: they're biodegradable, free and as green as they come - literally! In fact, Helga says in days gone by many things were used or even re-used to create something fittingly festive: "One of the things people did was to get a scrap like a santa figure or an angel and then simply cut it out, get some tinsel stuff, create a hanger for it and put that on the tree. They'd also get walnuts and gild them and hang them on the tree. Another nice thing was an almond and raisin garland where you just get a needle then thread almonds and raisins into a little string and that could be hung up. People would also make 'cornucopias' which are like ice cream cornets which were decorated and then filled up with sweetmeats and that was hung on the tree, ready to be pulled off by the children and devoured."
The Kissing Bough is unmissable!
Talking of food, Helga says that as part of Red House's 19th century-style Christmas celebrations there may also be some culinary delights on show at the museum if you visit. Not only is there the biggest plum pudding you've ever seen in your life perched on top one of the kitchen tables, but if you're lucky you might meet Henrietta the cook. She's come forward in time to explain how things were done in those far-off days: "She's explaining how to make some of the dessert dishes that were around in the 19th century and talking about how, if you wanted something fruity at Christmas, then you had to preserve it in the summer. You took it from your garden and did something with it to make sure you had pickles and preserves and so on in wintertime. People will be able to have a little taste of something called damson cheese or gooseberry cheese, a very early 19th century type of preserve which is just not made nowadays. We've also got some 'medlars' which are a fruit we don't really have now. It's nice to look back at lots of things that were really popular at that time which have just completely disappeared."
Rarity: Medlar fruit at Red House
With Red House festooned with garlands, and with perhaps a little bit to eat too, a visit there really is a trip back in time this festive season. As well as the decorations and the food, there's also a small exhibition showing what more modern Christmases were like - right up to the 1950s, 1960s and 1970s, including lots of toys and annuals you might even recognise if you're of a certain age! It all adds up to a bit of festive West Yorkshire nostalgia, the sort that goes down a treat at this time of year.
The real stars of the show at Red House, though, must be the 19th century-style garlands which add lots of Christmas colour to a cold winter's day. Helga says they really make an impact on visitors to the museum - but they're easy enough for most people to make: "We've done some decorations in previous years and it really does make an impression, quite a long-lasting impression actually. You can't really see this in many places at all. The time and the effort that goes into making 'real' decorations is quite unique really so people are experiencing their colour, shape and scent. We're hoping that people will discover something they didn't know before about Christmas in the past and will be able to incorporate a little bit of that into their own Christmas...If you go into a lot of shops you can get imitation holly garlands but they don't have that life about them - there's a reality about these. It makes a difference. It's just once a year and you can make a small garland in an hour or two - the time it'd take to watch an episode of Coronation Street or something!"
For more details about Red House, visit the museum's web page at kirklees.gov.uk. Just click on the link below...
last updated: 17/04/2009 at 15:50
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