The spirit of Christmas at Hoghton Tower
- Credit: Archant
One of Britain’s most haunted houses stages a series of tours showing how Christmas was celebrated centuries ago
Next time you complain about Christmas starting far too early, spare a thought for your Tudor ancestors. They began getting ready for the festivities back in the balmy days of September.
That was when they started brewing beer, preserving fruits and creating delicious syrups to be used in a wide range of puddings and sauces.
This fascinating time in our history is brought back to life by the team at Hoghton Tower, the spectacular home of the de Hoghton family just outside Preston. This imposing building is reputed to be one of the most haunted houses in Britain although head guide Richard Roberts has managed to side-step any spooks during the 12 years he has been there.
However, he and the time do bring to life the spirit of Christmases past with a series of hugely popular tours of the building, taking visitors through beautifully decorated rooms celebrating the Tudors, the Georgians and the Victorians.
Richard’s favourite time is the Tudor period, not surprising when you consider Hoghton Tower was built in the 1560s when Queen Elizabeth I was on the throne.
Each room is like a time capsule. ‘We’ve had to do a fair bit of research which was great fun,’ said Richard. ‘For a home of this status it was pretty much self-sufficient – everything you needed was on site.
‘They would have been starting preparations at the end of September brewing beer, preserving fruits and making syrups and hanging meat for curing. A lot of people are under a misapprehension about Christmas celebrations back then.
‘It was much bigger than people think and people had a lot more time off than is generally imagined. It also marked the end of winter and the prospect of better times to come – that was all part of the celebration.
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‘But no decorations would have gone up before Christmas Eve; that would have been considered very unlucky. The four weeks leading up to Christmas is Advent and this period would have involved a lot of fasting. Christmas Eve was particularly strict on the food front but the arrival of Christmas Day meant that just about everything in the kitchen was up for grabs.’
Wealthy folk such as the inhabitants of Hoghton Tower would have probably staged some lavish feasts. According to Sarah Bryson, of The Tudor Society, one extraordinary meal of the time was a pastry pie containing a turkey stuffed with a goose which was stuffed with a chicken which was stuffed with a partridge which was then stuffed with a pigeon. Another tradition was to skin a peacock, cook it and then insert it back into its skin. The peacock was then presented in all its stunning feathers but inside it was ready to eat!
Peacock will not be on the menu for guests who take the evening tour of Hoghton Tower but mulled wine and delicious savoury and sweet dishes will be coming from the kitchens.
Decorations were also in vogue back then, although they tended to be holly boughs and berries rather than baubles and tinsel. Richard said ladies even decorated their spinning wheels to show they were on holiday and Plough Monday, celebrated on the first Monday after 12th night, was a day when farm workers decorated their ploughs and paraded them through the streets. In fact, this activity continues in some remote parts of the country.
If times were a little excessive during the Tudor period, the opposite was true during the rule of Oliver Cromwell. ‘He abolished most of the more boisterous activities,’ said Richard. ‘The Puritans didn’t ban Christmas but it was more about fasting and admitting your sins than having a good time.
‘In Tudor times, Hoghton Tower was the sort of place that would have been incredibly busy at Christmas with many guests enjoying dancing, play acting and there would have been a lot of charitable activities with wealthy people making gifts to the poorer individuals.
‘A house of this standing would have had many visitors and they would have brought their own servants with them. The place would have been packed.’
And if you sometimes tire just a little of Aunty Mabel overstaying her welcome, Richard has some news for you. ‘Back in Tudor times the relatives would arrive en masse and stay anything up to three weeks!’ Not many silent nights back then. w
Special Christmas tours of Hoghton Tower take place on December 13, 14, 15 and 16. For more information go to www.hoghtontower.co.uk or call 01254 852986.