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Recent years have seen new festive traditions taking shape at UCL. For a number of years the range of holiday decorations and numbers of Christmas trees on campus has been growing noticeably, culminating in the last couple of years in a big ‘Festive Lights’ switch on in the main quad as well as the lighting of an oversized Hanukkah menorah on the Portico steps. Such decorations contrast starkly with students’ indictments on previous lacklustre efforts (see 2018’s UCL’s saddest Christmas decorations).

Recent years have seen new Happy Holidays illuminations on campus. Photograph by Mary Hinkley, December 2023, copyright UCL Digital Media.

The last decade of the nineteenth century and the first of the twentieth century also saw recently-formed student societies developing new Christmas traditions at University College. As today, this was part of a conscious effort to promote a sense of belonging among the student body and strengthen University College identity. The men’s Union Society was founded in 1893 and the Women’s Union Society (WUS) in 1897, and from 1897 the two unions came together to celebrate an annual ‘Foundation Week’ each spring. The run up to Christmas was busy with concerts, dinners, and society meetings – with term not ending until around 20 December each year. Each union marked Christmas in their own way, with the men’s Union Society inaugurating a Winter Concert in 1896 that ran for a few years. At around the same time the WUS hosted a Christmas concert by the Musical Society in the women’s rooms. 

In December 1900 Slade students organised its first fancy dress ball, decorating the school’s building with ‘various draperies, holly and evergreens’, which it repeated on the last day of the Christmas term for a few years. One of the oldest College societies, the Medical Society, also held its annual dinner in mid-December in the years before the First World War. This was a grand affair with many speeches and numerous toasts, and was held in 1902 at one of the West End’s most famous restaurants, Frascati’s on Oxford Street. 

Interior of Frascati’s banqueting room in the 1890s, Historic England.

Organising Christmas treats and entertainments for hospital inpatients and college servants and their children was also a regular part of student life before the First World War. Servants, including cleaning, portering, catering and other domestic staff were treated to an annual dinner and given Christmas ‘boxes’ donated by the students’ unions. Benefactors donated a Christmas tree for the children’s wards in University College Hospital, and nurses arranged to distribute presents. A variety of entertainments were put on each year, including a Punch and Judy in 1899 and in 1900 medical students wandered ‘from ward to ward discoursing sweet music as they went’ according to the University College Gazette. So enjoyable were these entertainments, that patients who have been in the hospital before at Christmas, ‘frequently manage to get ill again as December advances’ noted the Union Magazine in 1905. Christmas cards were sometimes sold by the Union, as in 1900 when former Slade student Mr R. Emmanuel, created cards with a design of the College to raise funds for a new sporting pavilion.

However, student complaints about the shortness of the break between the main teaching terms would be familiar to UCL’s academic staff today. An editorial in the 1901 edition of the University College Gazette noted ‘the Christmas recess is hardly worth the term “vacation” to all our readers’.