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One of the wonderful things about Christmas time is decorating our homes and our Christmas trees with twinkly lights, bright colours and festive cheer! However, the idea of hanging up decorations in the middle of Winter is a much older tradition than Christmas. There are accounts of decorations being used as early as Roman times during the feast of Saturnalia which dates back to the 5th century BC! But decorations have increasingly become central to the celebration of Christmas and from about the 1500’s onwards, people began to decorate their homes using greenery such as Holly and Ivy, whilst in the homes of the very wealthy, the best tapestries and jewels would also be put on display! Inside the collection at The National Archives there are hundreds of documents that can tell us about the different decorations favoured at Christmas, from Tudor times through to the twentieth century. These documents include adverts for Christmas decorations, photographs and even descriptions of what people chose to decorate their homes with to celebrate the festive season. Below are a selection of a few of our favourite documents relating Christmas decorations in the past.

See what you can find out about Christmas decorations from looking at these documents and answering the questions. Then, if you’d like to get crafty and creative, take a look at some of our ideas for your own Christmas decorations or even have a go at making ginger-bread stars to hang on your Christmas tree!

Craft activity

Now that you’ve explored the archive documents that tell us about Christmas decorations, you can use them as inspiration to get crafty and creative! Have a go at some of these fun activities.

« Return to Decorations

These documents show Christmas decorations recorded in our collection. What similarities and differences can you see between the decorations we use today, and the Christmas decorations that people chose to use in the past?

Fascinating Festive Facts

Did you know…

  • Christmas Crackers were invented by a sweet-maker called Tom Smith. He got the idea from French sweets called Bon-Bons that were wrapped in tissue paper and tied at each end. Apparently he got the idea of how the packaging could ‘crack’ from watching a fire crackle!
  • Mistletoe was originally used to decorate people’s homes and ward off evil spirits from Druid times onwards. Charles Dickens’ popular story ‘A Christmas Carol’, published in 1843, had pictures of people kissing under the mistletoe at Christmas. This became a popular Christmas tradition and is still one that is used today!
  • The Christmas tree was introduced as a Christmas tradition to England by Queen Victoria’s husband, Prince Albert, who had been born in Germany. In 1848, the Illustrated London News published an image of the Royal family decorating their Christmas tree. Very soon, Christmas trees were a popular addition to homes across the country! The Victorians used to decorate their Christmas trees with delicious treats that could be eaten such as gingerbread, as well as beautiful coloured baubles and even candles!
  • Christmas Lights – the idea of using lights as decorations at Christmas has a long tradition. Light has always played an important role in ancient festivals, even before Christmas was celebrated. The light from candles and bonfires was seen as a way of inviting the sun to return after a long, dark winter. From the 1800’s it became popular , first in Germany and then later in England, to decorate Christmas trees with mini candles. The light symbolised Jesus and the eternal light of his spirit.  Real candles however posed quite a fire hazard, and by the 1900’s lantern like glass balls were invented to hold the candles. These slowly transformed into the Christmas lights that are so popular today!