This week our Christmas decorations went up marking the start of the festive season in Belfast’s original Poor House. Our Archive & Heritage Development Officer dipped into our archive to see how the Poor House would have been decorated in the past.
In the Georgian era the House was decorated throughout in what the Belfast Charitable Society termed ‘appropriate greenery’ featuring garlands and wreaths made of holly, pines, firs and ivy. The Poor House residents would also collect their own foliage from the grounds to decorate their rooms. The use of greenery indoors was typical of homes throughout Ireland in this period. During the late 1700s the gentry would have decorated their homes with kissing boughs adorned with fruits and spices as well as candles or ribbons. The labouring class would also have brought greenery into the home, but traditionally this was not done until Christmas Eve. In Irish folklore one of the few plants forbidden to be taken indoors was the hawthorn as it was feared you would bring death or illness into the house.
It was not until Queen Victoria ascended to the throne that many traditions we associate with Christmas today came into being. Christmas trees where brought into the Royal Court by George III’s wife, Queen Charlotte. By 1841 Queen Victoria and Prince Albert had begun a tradition of decorating a tree in Windsor Castle each Christmas and people began to copy the idea when a drawing of the Royal family around their Christmas tree appeared in an illustrated journal in 1848. This was originally a Germanic tradition which Victoria grew up with. By the 1860s places like Covent Garden Market would sell hundreds of trees each year. Around this time the tradition of Christmas stockings also began. Children of wealthier families would hang a stocking on Christmas Eve and it would be filled with sweet treats when they woke on Christmas Day.
We have no record of when a tree first appeared in the Poor House, but there is evidence that the tradition of garlands of ‘appropriate greenery’ was carried on throughout our history to this day.