Public understandings of the history of Christmas in England, c. 1780 to the present
Submitting InstitutionUniversity of Kent
Unit of AssessmentHistory
Summary Impact TypeCultural
Research Subject Area(s)
Language, Communication and Culture: Cultural Studies, Literary Studies
History and Archaeology: Historical Studies
Summary of the impact
This case study relates to cultural life. Mark Connelly's research into
the development of the modern Christmas has been accessed by a wide range
of users for an equally wide range of purposes. Of particular importance
are his contributions to the heritage sector and media designed to
enhance, nuance and challenge public understandings of Christmas. This has
been achieved through:
- Museum/gallery exhibitions, online-catalogues, and staff development
as a consultant for the Geffrye Museum's annual `Christmas Past'
exhibition (2010) and a podcast for the National Gallery, London (2010)
- Articles in popular, large-circulation history magazines: BBC
History; BBC Knowledge (aimed at US and Far East market);
BBC Who Do You Think You Are?
- Television and radio programmes. Examples include acting as script
consultant for Toys That Made Christmas (BBC2 2011) and Ade's
Christmas Crackers (ITV1 2012)
During Connelly's association with the Geffrye Museum, total visitor
numbers have exceeded 35,000 and the online catalogue entries have
received over 550,000 hits. Viewing and listening figures for the radio
and television broadcasts totalled more than 3.5 million, and the total
circulation of the magazines was over 110,000. Positive reviews and
responses to these outputs have indicated the significance of the impact.
The research (conducted 1996-2010) by Connelly (Lecturer, 1999; Senior
Lecturer 2001; Reader 2005; Professor 2008 - ) provided the first
extensive survey of the development of Christmas in Britain, particularly
England, and its export to the British Empire from c. 1780. It was based
on the exploration of a wide-range of sources including published
documents, sheet music, newspapers, journals, trade journals, magazines,
novels, shopping guides and advertisements, pantomime scripts and
playbills, films, cinema, television and radio programmes. Archives
included British Library and British Newspaper Library, British Film
Institute, BBC, Royal Commonwealth Society, English Folk Dance and Song
Society, Victoria and Albert Museum, National Gallery and National
Portrait Gallery, Selfridges and the John Lewis Partnership.
The key findings were:
- That the emphasis on Christmas as an invented tradition often missed
the subtlety of the process particularly during the Victorian period.
The obsessive historical research into the supposedly ancient roots of
Christmas undertaken by many Victorian scholars could not be dismissed
as simply inventing a past, as this failed to appreciate the emotional
and intellectual attachment to the methods of historical validation
undertaken by the champions of Christmas. The emphasis on the invented
tradition approach also tended to underplay the degree of continuity in
the observation of Christmas carried over from the eighteenth century.
- That Christmas came to be understood as a peculiarly English, as
opposed to British, cultural phenomenon based on perceptions of an
underpinning Anglo-Saxon mentality.
- That the celebration of Christmas played a key role in the `English
musical renaissance' which commenced in the late nineteenth century and
that the search for the folk carol was highly influential on figures
such as Cecil Sharp, Ralph Vaughan Williams and Gustav Holst.
- That the rise of department store culture and a more complex consumer
society from the late 1860s was extremely important in the development
of Christmas as it helped promote the concept of lavish spending,
ritualised the concept of Christmas shopping, and turned the art of
Christmas window dressing into a highly significant platform for the
delivery of a range of historical and patriotic messages well beyond
simple commercial advertisement.
- That Christmas became a highly effective form of social bonding for
the British Empire. It was used to promote the concept of one, huge,
inter-dependent family unit which concentrated its thoughts on shared
values on a particular day each year.
- That, in the twentieth century, modern technology in the form of
broadcasting and film enhanced the profile of Christmas and in
particular added great weight to the idea that it was a peculiarly
Anglo-Saxon phenomenon, a concept which found equal favour in the USA.
This was taken up by Hollywood and resulted in a stream of highly
successful films, which have been given an enduring afterlife through
television (including video/DVD formats), that often promote the concept
of a festival dominated by Anglo-Saxon traditions.
The research was published in monographs (1999 [new edition, 2012]; 2000)
and three articles in wide-circulation popular magazines and as notes on
the Geffrye Museum's `Search the Catalogue' webpage sections, which form
examples of impact in their own right. (See section 4 below for details.)
Of key interest to users outside academia has been the issue of
challenging popular conceptions of Christmas through greater
contextualisation and the exploration of continuities/discontinuities in
the domestic celebration of the festival.
References to the research
1. Mark Connelly, Christmas: a social history (London: I.B.
Tauris, 1999; paperback edition with new introduction, 2012)
2. Mark Connelly (ed.), Christmas at the movies: representations of
Christmas in American, British and European Cinema (London: I.B.
3. Mark Connelly, We Can Take It! Britain and the memory of the
Second World War (London: Pearson/Longman, 2004) [For perceptions of
wartime Christmases, especially that of 1940 as seen through the film, Christmas
4. Mark Connelly, Steady the Buffs! A regiment, a region and the
Great War (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2006) [For perceptions
of the 1914 Christmas Truce]
The influence of the work on subsequent historians of Christmas can be
seen in works such as Neil Armstrong, `England and German Christmas
Festlichkeit c. 1800 - 1914', German History, Vol. 26, No. 4,
2008, pp. 486 - 503. It was also reviewed in Victorian Studies,
Vol. 44, No. 1, Autumn 2001, pp. 124-126.
Details of the impact
Development of the impact
The widespread interest in the history of Christmas and its observation
has led many agencies (including organisations such as BBC radio and
television, ITV, Channel 4, ARTE, English Heritage, The Guardian,
Studios UK) to Connelly's research, and their reliance on it reveals
its significance as a primary point of reference. The body of work has
resulted in a large and diverse range of requests for assistance from an
equally broad range of organisations and its impact commenced before the
start date of the current census (consultant and participant in BBC
documentaries in 2003 and 2007) and has continued.
Consultancy and staff training work with the Geffrye Museum, London
The museum adopted the theme of cross-cultural influences in domestic
culture (`Stories of the World: London') for its role in the 2012 Cultural
Olympiad. To assist with this Connelly was appointed consultant in March
2010 to advise on the Germanic influence on the English Christmas, and on
the re-cataloguing and classifying of Christmas items for the `Search the
Collections' pages of its website. Geffrye Museum curator, Alexandra
Goddard, stated: `Mark's interest in the collections and profound
expertise in the social and economic history of that period meant that he
immediately sprang to mind as a suitable expert upon whom to call.' [5.1]
To enhance the visitor experience to the museum's annual Christmas Past
exhibition and staff familiarity with material and context, Connelly was
engaged to provide a staff training session, which was conducted on
Wednesday 17 November 2010 in the presence of the museum's director and
twenty-seven staff. His contribution was designed to help shape the way
museum guides enhance the visitor experience.
National Gallery, London
In December 2010 the National Gallery recorded Connelly for a podcast
on the extravagant nature of shop window dressing to promote Christmas.
Connelly was recorded at Fortnum and Mason's Piccadilly store analysing
its Christmas display and contextualising it by discussing the history of
this particular form of advertising.
Examples of broadcast media impact
La Père Noël et ses anĉestres, broadcast 25 December 2011
The reach of Connelly's work was revealed when he was contacted by the
Franco-German arts channel, ARTE, for expert input on a documentary
exploring the changing representation of Father Christmas. Connelly was
interviewed for the production which was broadcast on ARTE on 25 December
2011. The documentary explored differing European traditions and how they
developed in a colonial context.
The Toys That Made Christmas, broadcast 25 December 2011
(repeated 27 December 2011; 22 December 2012; 26 December 2012)
Connelly was appointed as consultant to the research team and advised on
themes to be investigated as well as appearing as a `talking head'.
Ade's Christmas Crackers, broadcast 23 December 2012
Connelly was approached by the executive producer, Jeremy Phillips, to
advise on the planned content of the programme and act as Script
Consultant. The programme explored the changing nature of festive
BBC Radio 4Extra,
4 O'Clock Show, broadcast 25 December 2012 Connelly was
commissioned to provide a short feature on the changing nature of
Christmas celebrations in Britain. He provided an initial outline for the
producer suggesting themes for exploration. Connelly then wrote the script
and presented it.
Popular history publications
Connelly's relationship with the BBC was further strengthened through
invitations to contribute articles on aspects of the history of Christmas
for various BBC magazines. Connelly discussed the nature of the topics
with each editor, developed the main themes, suggested material for the
additional information boxes, as well as identifying suitable
illustrations and pieces of evidence. In the case of `Shop till you drop',
Connelly was also recorded for a supporting podcast.
Three pieces were written (details below) based upon material collected
for the original works and fresh primary source research in order
to tailor the articles to the precise needs of each title.
`Shop till you drop: Christmas and Consumerism', BBC History Magazine,
Vol. 9, No. 12, December 2008, pp. 31-35.
`Ghosts of Christmas Past', BBC Knowledge Magazine,
November-December 2009, pp. 36-43 (BBC Worldwide Production aimed mainly
at US and Far East market).
`Season of Goodwill', BBC Who Do You Think You Are Magazine,
Issue No. 29, December 2009, pp. 68-73.
The Geffrye Museum's `Search the Collections' webpage received 80,000
page views between February 2011 and February 2012. [5.1] The highlight of
the museum's calendar is its annual `Christmas Past' exhibition which
illustrates domestic Christmas rituals since 1600, and is responsible for
a significant spike in visitor numbers each year. (`Media interest in the
Christmas Past exhibition was very high', Annual Report, 2011-12). [5.2]
Visitor numbers to the exhibition: 2010, 12,392; 2011, 14,657; 2012,
Broadcast media: viewing figures for The Toys That Made Christmas,
1.53 million [5.7]; Ade's Christmas Crackers, 2.6 million [5.8];
listening figures for 4 O'Clock Show, approx. 5,321 [5.9]
Magazine circulation figures: BBC History Magazine: (Circulation
July-December 2008: 64,712) [5.10]
BBC Knowledge Magazine (Far East circulation 2009: 40,000) [5.10]
BBC Who Do You Think You Are Magazine (Circulation July-December
2009: 20,226) [5.10]
Alexandra Goddard, Assistant Keeper (Interpretations and Exhibitions) at
the Geffrye Museum, stated that Connelly's `expertise has been invaluable
to us', and that the staff training session `helped considerably in
briefing new staff, and expanding and refreshing the knowledge of longer-
serving members, contributing to their continuing professional
development'. She stated that Connelly had applied his academic knowledge
`to material culture and historic objects...in a way which enhances and
enriches the Geffrye's understanding of its collections and its ability to
communicate that to the general public.' [5.1] Media comments on the
exhibitions from 2010-12 included: `It wouldn't be Christmas without the
Geffrye's "Christmas Past"', Time Out magazine; `For some
Londoners, visiting the annual Christmas Past exhibition at the Geffrye
Museum is as much a part of Christmas as carol singing and scoffing mince
pies', Daily Telegraph. [5.4; 5.5] Visitor comments include: `an
absolute delight and not to be missed if you love Christmas traditions';
`Their annual Christmas past exhibition is a delight'; `Take your time,
absorb each room, read the story cards and imagine the scene as though the
people have just popped out for a moment. It becomes rather moving
The `Ideas Man' blog referred to The Toys That Made Christmas as
a programme `examining how toys have influenced gift-giving and our lives
in general. The show was made by the talented BBC team'. [5.11] Radio
Times selected Ade's Christmas Crackers among its pick of
the day. [5.12] Jeremy Phillips, the Executive Producer, stated that
Connelly played an `important' role in the research for the programme and
was `crucial to...the accuracy of the historical aspects of the
programme'. He stated that Connelly provided the production team with
`insights into the mindset of the British nation and guided us through the
festive archives. He helped us understand viewers' attitudes to Christmas,
what its origins are and why we celebrate it in the way we do.' [5.8]
Connelly has, therefore, contributed to a range of outputs that have
enhanced understandings of a high profile aspect of modern British life to
an equally wide range of people.
Sources to corroborate the impact
Information relating to Connelly's involvement with the Christmas Past
exhibition at the Geffrye Museum:
- Statement from Alexandra Goddard, Geffrye Museum, describing
Connelly's role in shaping the Christmas Past exhibition and delivering
staff training, March 2013
- The Geffrye Musuem Annual
Report March 2012
and Gallery Visit Figures, 2004-2012/13, published in `English
museum and gallery visitors — which place was most popular in 2012?',
The Guardian Datablog, 1 October 2012
Past 2011', Time Out, 11 October 2011
- John O' Ceallaigh, `This
week's best things to do in London, from Christmas Past to Santacon',
The Telegraph, 10 December 2012
- Reviews from visitors to the museum on the Tripadvisor website, November
Information relating to broadcast media and magazines:
beats Downton Abbey in Christmas ratings clash', Broadcast,
26 December 2011
- Email from Jeremy Philips, Producer of Ade's Christmas Crackers,
- Email regarding 4 O'Clock Show listening figures from Steven
George, BBC, October 2013
- Figures on magazine circulation can be found on the
BBC and Regent
The Toys That Made Christmas', Ideas Man, c.
Times, 22 December 2012 - 4 January 2013