IT’S CHRISTMAS 1820 in a cottage in the colliery village. A little Christmas tree sits on a shelf and coloured paper chains drape across the single downstairs room.

Next-door, where a pitman’s widow struggles to make ends meet, Christmas is even more frugal with chains made from an old newspaper.

Amidst this faint beacon of Yuletide austerity the lodger shows visitors how he makes rugs out of scraps of clothing outgrown by the widow’s children.

It’s a stark contrast to Pocklington Hall, half a mile away up the hill, where fires roar, the larder is full, and Christmas birds hang from the ceiling ready for the oven.

Yet even here in the home of a well-to-do farming family there is poverty, farmhands sleeping in dark, hidden-away little rooms with no Christmas trimmings.

Both these atmospheric evocations of Christmases past are at the Beamish living museum, near Newcastle, a vast, open-air treasure trove.

For our pre-Christmas family trip we chose Beamish rather than one of the many stately homes that offer nostalgic, Christmas card-perfect settings with fireside choirs and massive present-laden trees amidst sumptuous surroundings.

And a memorable day we had, putting into perspective the idyllic modern-day Christmas conjured up by those sugary TV ads for department stores and supermarkets.

At Beamish Christmas is portrayed in a low-key way in the various zones: the 1900s town street, the 1940s farm and the ever-growing 1820s settlements, where real historic buildings have been transplanted stone-by-stone from across the North-East.

The day was perfectly wintry for a pre-Christmas outing – freezing cold and frosty but without the downpours of the previous weekend  – with open fires very welcome as we explored the houses, shops and other buildings.

The main Christmas attractions are centred on the 1820s railway yard, overlooked by Pocklington Hall, where visitors can take a ride on one of the first-ever steam engines.

Santa Claus has his grotto in a colourful marquee, a tiny brass band plays in the neighbouring tent, and costumes servants are dishing out homemade soup from an oil drum.

The real reindeer wait in the paddock for their Christmas Eve flight, and alongside, proudly stomping through the mud, is one of the biggest pigs I’ve ever seen.

Between the station and hall is Beamish’s newest acquisition, a little Anglican church century  recreates the no-trimmings worship of a rural parish in the 19th century.

Over the next few years, this area is due to be further developed with a windmill, quilter’s cottage and large coaching inn where visitors will be able to stay overnight.

After soup and hot chocolate we made our way through the woods to the pit village – one of the most interesting parts of Beamish.

There’s the colliery itself, where visitors can go up to explore the machinery or down into one of the real mine shafts from days gone by.

In the nearby row of pitmen’s cottages we chatted with the poverty-stricken residents – among the many actor-guides who inhabit the houses and shops of Beamish.

Over the road there’s the old school, always one of the most popular attractions, where older people can feel nostalgic and today’s children can marvel at how their ancestors had to learn, swap electronic for slate tablet, and try master the playground toys of yesteryear.

On the opposite hill the Home Farm has been transformed from the Victorian farmstead of a few years ago into a 1940s settlement where, as the Second World War rages on, there is little evidence of Christmas festivities.

We didn’t see any of the Home Guard and Land Girls who normally will populate Home Farm, but we had a chat with the blacksmith, encountered the local bobby and explored houses that really show the meaning of austerity.

Then it was onto the 1900s town where the wealth of attractions – houses, shops, garage, bank, masonic lodge, pub, horse yard -- can itself can fill half a day.

The Edwardian fairground has a frost fair amongst its traditional rides and stalls, including an outdoor skating rink.

The windows of the Cooperative Society were full of Christmas gifts, while the most recent building, a baker and confectioner’s, was doing a roaring trade.

Scaffolding was up on a stationers and photographer studio, part of a raft of new buildings planned for the town’s expansion.

Only yards away is another site where over the next few years there will be new townscapes dedicated to the 1950s and 1980s.

For now, though, you’ll find that even in winter Beamish offers enough to keep you occupied for the entire day and more.

The whole of Beamish is open every weekend before Christmas, plus December 21, 22, 23 and 24. Weekdays offer half-price admission but only the 1900s town, pit village and Santa’s grotto are open.

Open 10am to 4pm. Visit or call 0191 3704000 for further information.