Christmas traditions from the collection

Social History Curator Nicola Pullan explores Christmas objects from the collection – from trees to pantomime

Christmas may only come once a year, but in social history we have a nice collection of objects for the festive season, as people in Leeds have been celebrating for centuries.
This morning I did my first ever toddler friendly curator talk at Leeds City Museum. When I say toddler friendly, what I mean is adult talk aimed at the parents, carers or guardians of babies and toddlers who are all in the same room. I decided to do a whistle-stop tour through some of the Christmas items represented in the collections.

Here are a few of my favourite objects from our Christmas collections:


Wooden wassail bowl
Wassail bowl (Leeds Museums and Galleries)

Firstly, our Wassail bowl (LEEDM.E.1964.0085.0001) which would have been used by Wassail singers out on January 5th to mark the twelfth night, and would have been filled with an alcoholic punch like Lambswool.

Our bowl also has two wooden cups on the top. Lambswool would have contained ingredients such as roasted apples, beer, sugar and spices like nutmeg or cinnamon.

A Feathered Christmas Tree?

Feathered Christmas tree, bought in Leeds in 1923.

Second is one of our artificial Christmas trees (LEEDM.E.1990.0073). We do have more than one in the collection, but this particular one was bought in a Leeds shop in 1923 and was used every year until 1989.

The leaves are made using dyed green feathers, and some of the branches have candle holders on, others have red berries.

Artificial trees date back to at least the nineteenth century and feathered ones like ours originated in Germany.


Colourful programme cover showing Dick Whittington and his cat
Programme of Dick Whittington Pantomime, Leeds Empire Theatre, 1958.

Next, a programme from the Leeds Empire Theatre for Emile Littler’s Laughter Pantomime “Dick Whittington” from Jan 1958 (LEEDM.E.1990.0004.0008), which was presented to Alderman J. Hiley, then Lord Mayor of Leeds, on his visit to the theatre.

Littler was in charge of the Palace Theatre in London from 1946 to 1983 and well known for putting on pantomimes, bringing over 200 to the stage in his career, and he was author or co-author of many of them.

A Victorian Christmas Stocking

White cotton stocking
Stocking, used circa 1825-1850.

Finally, I really like this Christmas stocking (LEEAG.2015.0035). It is a man’s white cotton knitted long stocking, with laundry mark embroidered at the top in red cross stitch of “W.M.7”.

The stocking originally belonged to a Mr William Mee, a lawyer in Retford, Nottinghamshire, between 1825 and 1850. It was then used as a Christmas stocking by Dr S. Holoran from Leeds 16. It looks nothing like the stockings we have become used to today, but it is a charming object when you know its history.

By Assistant Social History Curator Nicola Pullan

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