WHILE Christmas shoppers flock along Coney Street to TK Maxx, Boots and WH Smith, not far away a very different high street is attracting visitors with its festive displays.

But instead of party clothes, make-up and electronic goods, this characterful lane offers a variety of gifts from yesteryear including fur muffs, traditional wooden toys, crystallised fruits and old-fashioned sweets.

The ornate shop frontages display confectionery, millinery, stationery, food and a host of other enticing wares, and like the shops in Coney Street, they are decorated for Christmas - festooned with sprigs of holly, spruce and other trappings of the season.

These out-of-the-ordinary shops line Kirkgate, the step-back-in-time street inside York Castle Museum.

The cobbled Victorian lane, one of the building’s main attractions, is based on real businesses that operated in the city between 1870 and 1901.

To reflect the Christmas celebrations of that period, staff at the museum create displays and decorations that would have enticed shoppers to come in and buy, as well as providing festive cheer.

“We carried out research and looked at the notices put out by shopkeepers and at what sort of goods they would be advertising at Christmas,” says Katie Brown, the museum’s assistant curator of history.

An upmarket grocer catering for wealthy families, George Britton - which traded on Spurriergate and Petergate - was decorated with replicas of the kinds of fruits and nuts that wealthy people would have bought for Christmas.

Their adverts focussed on the ‘Finest Foreign Fruit’, and at Christmas they sold goods including sultanas, lemons, almonds, ‘Huntley & Palmers famous Christmas cake’ and cheese.

‘It is an ‘open secret’ that George Britton has long been noted for the splendid qualities of his famous speciality cheese,’ boasts a sign put at the front of the shop that bears the grocer’s name.

In pre-fridge days, foodstuffs were bought close to Christmas to maintain freshness.

Originally on Nunnery Lane, Thomas Ambler was a more affordable family grocer and provision dealer. “Traditional grocers like Thomas Ambler would give cards or gifts to regular customers,” explains Katie. “That is why we put an orange on the poor person’s lodgings. Oranges were not cheap, but were often given as gifts.”

In common with other shops, the grocers is decorated with original Victorian Christmas cards.

“They were not necessarily Christmassy,” says Katie. Pointing out a selection in Sessions, the printer and stationer, which was then in Low Ousegate, and remained in the city until 2011.

“There’s a chick in an egg cup, one with three frogs playing musical instruments, and some were quite macabre - one shows a turkey being herded to his death by spear-carrying dwarves.”

Many people left decorated calling cards containing Christmas messages at the homes of friends and acquaintances.

“This was common in those days, and as Christmas became more celebrated, cards became popular,” says Katie.

It is not hard to imagine the children of the day looking dreamy-eyes through the windows of Kendricks toy dealer, at toy soldiers, trains sets, dolls and jigsaws.

“These would be very much for middle class and upper middle class children,” says Katie.

York’s first department store Leak & Thorp, originally on Coney Street, would have displayed its finest wares for Christmas in a special Christmas Bazaar.

Their window in Kirkgate showcases novelty goods such as Japanese lanterns, pampas grass and palm fronds, all of which were advertised as part of the 1889 bazaar.

“It is not what you would expect for Christmas,” says Katie, adding that the bazaar would have been widely advertised in local newspapers including The Yorkshire Gazette and Yorkshire Herald.

A splendid dressing gown, hand-stitched in patchwork, alerts customers to the fabrics on sale inside, where beautifully crafted festive fans adorned with feathers, are on show.

Wearing the shop assistant’s clothing of the day, Madison Bedford demonstrates how to make a patchwork. “People would make bed quilts and blankets, in different styles of quilting,” she says.

Leak & Thorp had a different offering every year: in 1898 their Christmas Bazaar focussed on materials for evening gowns and ribbons.

“All the Christmas baubles in the window are original, made of glass and metal,” says Katie. “Victorians loved novelty baubles, they had shapes including fruit, birds and bells.”

As in present day St Helen’s Square, Kirkgate has a Christmas tree. It is decorated with Christmas cones, which would be handmade and filled with sweets such as sugared almonds.

By the late 19th century Christmas trees were the centrepiece of a middle class Victorian Christmas display. “Paper chains would also be made and hung around the room,” says Katie.

Children visiting the museum can make their own tree cones, at a stand beside GE Barton confectioner’s - a paradise for the sweet-toothed with its rows of boiled sweets and candies. Barley sugar twists, sugar mice and other goodies line the shelves.

Sporting a straw boater and shawl, shop assistant Sharon Smith says: “It feels really Christmassy. Children love coming in here, as they would have done in those days.”

Adds Katie: “The sweets we sell are very similar to those that were sold in those days. We have a Terry’s catalogue of the flavours.”

A hand-painted canvas hangs from a first-floor window exclaiming: ‘A Merrie Christmas to one and all from your Humble Servants.’

“Shopkeepers would use signs like this to wish everyone a happy Christmas - this sign was copied from an actual sign above a butcher’s shop in Lincolnshire,” says Katie.

Chemists capitalised on the cold weather by advertising their cough and cold remedies. These adverts would greatly increase over the Christmas period.

In 1889 John Saville & Sons pharmacy, originally on Goodramgate, advertised potions including Ebor Cough Balsam, Liver and Stomach Mixture and Quinine and Iron Tonic.

An array of Victorian Christmas cards shows the type of greeting John Saville, his workers and his family would have sent to customers.

Shoppers themselves, being from the middle and upper classes, would want to look smart. Women could accessories their hats with ribbons, feather and fake blooms, from the milliners. “There was more of a range at Christmas,” says Katie.

One of the less savoury sides of Christmas, alcohol consumption rises, and Victorian times were no exception to this.

The Cocoa Temperance Rooms offered a warming alternative, serving mugs of piping hot cocoa.

Sited on High Ousegate and Feasegate, the rooms were often run by people with links to the Society of Friends (Quakers) or Wesleyans. They were intended to provide an alternative to pubs - an alcohol-free place for people to socialise.

Driffield-born Francis Bacon ran the Ebor and York Temperance Club and Cocoa Rooms in the 1880s. There was much rejoicing and music, but without the bawdy behaviour brought on by drink.

People would be invited to bring along donations of gifts for children, as they did at the workhouse.

Kirkgate’s Cocoa Temperance rooms are even more enticing through the mouthwatering, amazingly authentic, smell of hot chocolate permeating throughout.

Even the pawnbroker had a special promotion for Christmas – in 1889 Henry Hardcastle, originally in Lady Peckitt’s Yard, advertised the expansion of his shop in Pavement. His special Christmas offerings included men’s suits and topcoats.

*York Castle Museum is open daily from 9.30am to 5pm. Closed December 25 and 26 and January 1. Early closing at 2.30pm: 24 and 31 December.

For admission charges visit yorkcastlemuseum.org.uk or telephone 01904 687687.