Victorian Christmas traditions revealed by Hitchin museum

1957 School Nativity Play – Queen Street School, Hitchin
Photo courtesy of the British Schools Muse

1957 School Nativity Play – Queen Street School, Hitchin Photo courtesy of the British Schools Museum - Credit: Archant

While schoolchildren nowadays decorate their classrooms, make cards and prepare for nativity plays, for Victorian children attending school Christmas was a time for exams.

The archives at the British Schools Museum in Hitchin contain fascinating insights into the Christmas celebration in schools.

David Whorlow, curator at the British Schools Museum, said: “During the strict Victorian 1860s the occasion was one of public examination of the year’s work, rather than the celebration we think of today.”

In 1862 the Government introduced measures to ensure that schools and scholars were performing correctly –an annual inspection and daily log books were introduced.

However, in 1864 the master’s log records at The Queen Street School in Hitchin showed that all was not well.

It says that a rehearsal showed that the singing was only fair, reading by Standard One was a failure, but by Standard Two was good. Grammar was “sleepy and uninteresting”, and for geography more information was required.

By 1865 however, the achievements were much better. Archives state the classes were all fit for examination and prizes were handed out.

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A small sense of fun was introduced in 1867 when the children sang and were presented with buns, and by 1890 some of the Victorian Christmas trimmings we know today appeared in schools. The infants had a Christmas tree and Miss Coward, the mistress, had obtained donations of money with which to purchase dolls and toys so that every child received a gift.

With the examination over, school would close for the two-week Christmas holiday.

By the 1950s the familiar Christmas nativity play and paper chain decorations were an established part of the school calendar.

The British Schools Museum is closed until the February half-term 2014.

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