Letting Traditions Grow 

For many Christmas just wouldn’t be the same without what has become something of a tradition – the yearly John Lewis Christmas advert. Accordingly, this month, we at EYA spoke to Gavin Henderson, archivist for John Lewis Partnership Heritage Centre, to find out what Christmas means to John Lewis Partnership and the role retail plays in the festive season more broadly.

‘Useful gifts’ and luxury goods

The practice of giving Christmas presents is an ancient tradition dating back thousands of years.  In these more modern times, the rise of retail and the department store during the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries has played a big part. 

Catalogues surviving in the John Lewis Partnership archive from as far back as 1916 show an emphasis on ‘useful gifts’. Nevertheless, however useful some of these suggestions may have been, there is clearly a bias toward luxury goods, with the inclusion of sterling silver, cut glass inkwells and pure silk stockings. Somewhat surprisingly, tech makes an appearance in gift suggestions from as early as 1923! 

Above. First image: Waitrose Christmas Food List from 1928. Copyright The John Lewis Partnership plc. Second image: Ordering early at Waitrose for a 1930s Christmas. Copyright The John Lewis Partnership plc.

Subsequently, post-war and into the 1950s, the emphasis was on value and affordability with leaflets suggesting inexpensive gifts which could be ordered and sent by post, and gift ideas helpfully arranged by price. 

Suggestions for inexpensive Christmas presents from John Lewis Oxford Street, early 1950s. Copyright The John Lewis Partnership plc.

A bearer of Christmas tidings

Significantly, for many, the launch of John Lewis’ Christmas advert heralds the beginning of the festive season. Noted for their wonderful storytelling and memorable characters – from Monty the Penguin (2014) to Snapper the Venus fly trap (2023) – they have become an instantly recognisable fixture of the season. Yet some may be surprised to learn that they began as recently as 2007 with the innovative ‘Shadow’ advert. The Partnership’s Heritage Centre holds props and memorabilia from John Lewis adverts over the years, including a preserved snowman – the last known survivor of about a dozen created for the 2012 Christmas advert ‘The Journey’. 

Christmas gift guide 1956. Copyright The John Lewis Partnership plc.

Changing tastes through the years

Undoubtedly, in many homes, Christmas just wouldn’t be complete without the traditions of food and drink. A look through the Waitrose archive reveals how tastes have endured and changed over the last 120 years. Markedly, the earliest surviving advertising from 1915 evidences the popularity of perennial favourites. These include jars of mincemeat, dried fruits, plum puddings and decorated Christmas cakes in sizes and at prices to suit every table and pocket. In addition, turkey, poultry and ham became the centrepiece of the Christmas dinner tables from the early 1920s. They were also incorporated into the Waitrose food offer. Meanwhile, as relative late-comers to the Christmas party, Stollen arrived in Waitrose shops from 1977, ready made mince pies in 1984 and Panettone in 1994! 

Written by Gavin Henderson, Archivist for John Lewis Partnership Heritage Services

Edited by Jake Doyle, Blog Coordinator for Explore Your Archive, MLitt Archives and Records Management Student and Archive Assistant at Suffolk Archives

Further Information

For more information on John Lewis Partnership Heritage Centre please see the following links:

Website: https://www.johnlewispartnership.co.uk/about/who-we-are/heritage-centre.html

Instagram: https://www.instagram.com/explore/tags/johnlewisheritagecentre/?hl=en

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