Where Christmas began…

This year at the Royal Armouries Museum in Leeds, Santa swaps his red suit for green and his grotto will transport you back to where Christmas celebrations began, in Victorian times.

Santa and friends at Royal Armouries Museum in Leeds

It seems hard to believe now but before the 19th century, Christmas was hardly celebrated and it didn’t become a public holiday until the end of the century. It is now the biggest annual celebration and we owe the Victorians for many of the festive traditions we still uphold today.

Starting with the man himself, Father Christmas was originally part of an old English midwinter festival, normally dressed in green – thought to symbolise a sign of the returning Spring. The stories of St. Nicholas (Sinter Klaas in Holland) came via Dutch settlers to America in the 17th century. From the 1870s, Sinter Klass became known in Britain as Santa Claus and with him came his unique gift and toy distribution system – reindeer and sleigh. (Source: www.historic-uk.com)

We also owe the pleasure of that colourful paper crown, tiny toy and joke that comes within the Christmas cracker, to British confectioner, Tom Smith, who in 1848 travelled to Paris and discovered bonbons. From this, he came up with the idea of a simple package filled with sweets that snapped when pulled apart. The sweets were replaced by small gifts and paper hats in the late Victorian period, and remain in this form as an essential part of a modern Christmas.

The roast turkey has its beginnings in Victorian Britain. Previously other roasted meat such as beef and goose were the centrepiece of the Christmas feast. Wealthier sections of the community added the turkey to the menu in the 19th century. It was deemed the perfect size for a middle class family gathering, and so became the dominant dish by the beginning of the 20th century. (Source: www.bbc.co.uk/history)

Come and experience the beginnings of Christmas in traditional Victorian style at Royal Armouries, Leeds. Christmas activities run from 1-23 December and Santa will visit every Saturday and Sunday.

For more information, visit our website.

Reporting From the Front

On 5 November 1854, one of the bloodiest battles of the Crimean War was fought. A large Russian army of over 40,000 troops counter attacked the Anglo-French forces besieging the Crimean town of Sevastopol, in an attempt to drive them away. After several hours of savage fighting the Russians withdrew, leaving over 12,000 dead on the field.

With the British troops at Inkerman was an artist, William Simpson. He was born in Glasgow in 1823 and became an apprentice lithographer. In 1851 he got a job as a lithographer with the firm Day & Son in London, and in 1854 was commissioned by the Fine Art company P&D Colnaghi to produce a series of illustrations depicting events during the Crimean War, which they intended to publish in a commemorative book.

Frontispiece

Frontispiece

Due to the lack of source material for the illustrations in England, Colnaghi’s took the unusual (for the time) decision to send Simpson out to the Crimea. He thus became one of the first war artists, depicting at first hand what was really going on. In 1856 his illustrations were published as The Seat of War in the East. This work comprised 81 colour lithographs with text in two series; the library at the Royal Armouries has copies of both, bound together into a single volume.

Second charge of the Guards at Inkerman

Second charge of the Guards at Inkerman

Several illustrations depict events during the Battle of Inkerman, and the whole volume is a magnificent testament to Simpson’s skills both as artist and reporter. After the Crimea Simpson went on to cover other British campaigns – including the Indian Mutiny – and worked all round the world covering military and civilian topics. His works appeared in numerous other publications and also newspapers such as the Illustrated London News. Simpson died in 1899, a successful and famous artist. He had even achieved Royal patronage from Queen Victoria herself.

The Field of Inkerman

The Field of Inkerman

Although the Russians were defeated at Inkerman, their attack did succeed in diverting the Allied efforts away from Sevastopol, ensuring the siege dragged on for many weeks longer, through the savage Crimean winter. The hardships the British soldiers endured during this time are well known, thanks to the efforts of William Simpson and the other early war reporters.

Blogger: Stuart Ivinson, Library Assistant