Nostalgia: When Christmas meant a trip to the greengrocer

We’re fond of complaining that Christmas has become too commercial, but as these seldom-seen pictures from the archive demonstrate, it was always thus.

circa 1920:  Two little boys dragging home their Christmas tree after choosing it at London's Covent Garden Market.  (Photo by Keystone/Getty Images)
circa 1920: Two little boys dragging home their Christmas tree after choosing it at London's Covent Garden Market. (Photo by Keystone/Getty Images)

The earliest shots were taken not long after Dickens’ time, when girls and boys could expect toy musical instruments, hobby horses and board games in their stockings. The presents may have been simple by today’s standards, but in an age when expectations were lower, the value was priceless.

The pictures also betray the British determination to enjoy the festive season even in the most extreme circumstances – a characteristic that was evident again last year, even if the danger was not comparable.

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In one poignant snap from December 1940, the very darkest period of the war, boys at a Dr Barnardo’s home are seen playing in an air raid shelter they built themselves in time for Christmas. In another, a young woman serving with the Army Auxiliary Territorial Forces decorates her quarters in the billet where she will spend the first Christmas of the war. The caption writer uses the phrase “somewhere in the Eastern Command”, which was how troops described their location on their postcards home, in order not to unwittingly pass on classified information.

circa 1920: Two little boys dragging home their Christmas tree after choosing it at London's Covent Garden Market. (Photo by Keystone/Getty Images)

We also glimpse an earlier lifestyle still – and one Dickens himself would have recognised – as two little boys drag home the Christmas tree they have just chosen at the fruit and vegetable market in London’s Covent Garden. The First World War had been over for barely two years when it was taken. In another shot from the same period, a young boy waits in a queue of children to buy mistletoe from the local greengrocer.

Even though the innocence of those times is lost to the wind, the magic is not – and the power of the festive season to captivate us still is cause enough for celebration.

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1929: A little girl taking home her Christmas Tree, bought from Caledonian Road Market, London. (Photo by Topical Press Agency/Getty Images)
10th December 1935: Thousands of Christmas trees grown in the Forest of Dean being loaded onto special trains at Grange Court Station, Gloucestershire, for dispatch all over the British Isles. (Photo by Fox Photos/Getty Images)
circa 1947: A family gathered round the Christmas tree with their presents at Christmas time. (Photo by Fox Photos/Getty Images)
19th December 1939: A young woman in the British Army Auxiliary Territorial Forces decorates her quarters in a billet somewhere in the Eastern Command, where she will be spending Christmas. (Photo by Fox Photos/Getty Images)
24th December 1925: Father Christmas handing out toys from the christmas tree on board the 'Arundel Castle', which left Southampton for the Cape on Christmas Eve. (Photo by Kirby/Topical Press Agency/Getty Images)
December 1936: Children play with the musical instruments they received from Santa for Christmas. (Photo by Fox Photos/Getty Images)
December 1935: Schoolchildren gaze, awestruck, at the Christmas tree in a shop window. (Photo by Fox Photos/Getty Images)
Boys at a Dr Barnardo's home have fun in the air raid shelter they built themselves at Christmas, 17th December 1940. (Photo by David Parker/Fox Photos/Hulton Archive/Getty Images)