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Home is where the hearth is at Christmas

There is only one standard way of celebrating Christmas, according to most small children, and that is how it is done at home. Any variations are seen as perverse - like the misguided Europeans who insist on giving their presents on Christmas Eve. But now Christmas Gifts, a free exhibition at London's Bethnal Green Museum of Childhood until January 9, challenges such easy assumptions with pictures and toys taken from other cultures as well as from our own.

In France, it is angels, or Jesus himself, who come down the chimney carrying the year's supply of etrennes, a word derived from the Latin strenae, which were presents given at mid-winter festivals in ancient Rome. These gifts are placed in shoes set round the hearth, with food for the visitor's pony - no reindeers here.

In Germany, presents are kept in a locked room with children allowed in only when a bell is rung. Gifts are grouped round the foot of a Christmas tree, an idea Queen Victoria made popular here. In Italy, it is a character called Bef-ana who comes down the chimney, pictured at the museum as a type of circus dancer.

Father Christmas also changes over time and geography. As depicted in Punch by Alice's illustrator John Tenniel, he looks dangerously flushed if not drunk. His long cloak gradually gives way to a type of furry jumpsuit and finally to today's tunic and breeches. Santa's universal benevolence does not always travel well over the Channel. In Holland he is seen boxing the ears of lazy, lying or greedy children. In France, he leaves only a birch for a naughty boy, pictured weeping bitterly while his better-behaved sisters enjoy their presents.

A crib from Naples measuring about five yards long shows a crowded street scene. The wise men on their camels and elephants searching out the baby Jesus mingle easily with other citizen-models getting on with their daily business. Back in Britain, there are photo-montages of the former Ludgate Hill toy-sellers. Their gaunt faces gazing out over trays of penny gifts contrast with the chubby, bonneted little girls and well-groomed lads pictured enjoying the toy arcades, or queuing up to see Santa Claus in Harrods.

Different toy boxes scattered around the exhibition reveal typical playthings of the period.

Some of the jigsaws, dolls and Meccano kits seem tame now, but the early model train sets are as impressive as they must have been 100 years ago. Add in the rest of the museum's permanent collection of toys, and this is a holiday treat to remember.

Nicholas Tucker * Bethnal Green Museum of Childhood, Cambridge Heath Road, London E2 9PA. Tel: 0181 933 5205. Admission is free.

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