Stately Homes at Christmas – What’s On
- Credit: Archant
Jane Travis explores Christmas Past ‘Downton-style’ at three of the county’s stately homes and discovers the delights in store for visitors this year
More than any other time of the year, Christmas is associated with acts of generosity and kindness. For many it’s also the chance to enjoy a thoroughly good time with family and friends, something which has been the case throughout the centuries regardless of wealth or social standing.
In a county blessed with so many beautiful historic houses, the festive period in Derbyshire proved to be a time of great celebrations not just for the families who owned them, but also for the workers at these powerful estates. From the late medieval through to more modern times, generations across the region marked Christmas in their own special way. As we flock to the county’s grand houses over the festive period to get into the Christmas mood and enjoy food, drink and merriments in the manner we know today, we can hear snippets of history that reveal not everything has completely changed and there might also be a few customs well worth bringing back...
A visit to Haddon Hall near Bakewell, one of the houses to have survived most intact from the Middle Ages, offers visitors a rare insight into how Christmas was celebrated in Tudor times. Marking Christmas was by no means a modest affair, as Hall Manager Janet Blackburn describes, using sources from the hall’s fascinating archives that survive from the Tudor period: ‘We have records of the Stewards Accounts from 1549–1670 giving various costings of items bought and paid for at Haddon Hall. These mention huge quantities of food being purchased for the Christmas festivities including rabbit, woodcock, snipe, blackbird and wildfowl, along with venison and beef. Mention of pipers, jugglers, minstrels and dancers allows us to imagine the Banqueting Hall filled with raucous merrymaking – especially when you consider other ledger entries which include tuns (a tun was 252 gallons!) of white wine, claret and beer.’
Despite all this jollity, traditionally houses would not have been decorated until Christmas Eve as it was considered bad luck to decorate them earlier, and at Haddon gifts were exchanged at New Year as Christmas celebrations lasted for the full 12 days. All work ceased across the estate except for farming and it was the practice for ladies to place a posy of flowers on their spinning wheels to stop them from working.
Janet continues: ‘Traditionally Christmas was very much a sociable occasion and a time for wassailing. Whole groups of people would call from door to door, singing songs in return for wassail – a kind of hot mulled cider. Wassail comes from the old English “Waes Hael” and means “be you healthy”. In Tudor manor houses at Christmas time, the intriguing custom of appointing The Lord of Misrule also existed, where a lowly servant boy or peasant would be in charge of the festivities, and supposedly would have total say on what happened.’
Haddon Hall’s modern-day Tudor theme means that visitors this Christmas will see beautifully decorated trees (which of course were a much later addition to Christmas celebrations) in the Long Gallery and around the Hall, as well as festive, warming fireplaces which throughout time have been a key focal point of all houses.
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At the Tudor masterpiece of Hardwick Hall near Chesterfield, Visitor Experience Manager Rachel Albanese describes how at the turn of the 20th century Bess of Hardwick’s descendants used Hardwick Hall as the location for their family Christmas celebrations: ‘Duchess Evelyn and her husband, the 9th Duke of Devonshire, loved Hardwick so much that they made it the centre of their festivities. The Duke and Duchess and their seven children enjoyed traditional family Christmases at Hardwick, including the children performing a Christmas play for the adults in the Long Gallery on Christmas Eve.’
Indulging in plentiful consumption of festive food and drink is by no means a modern phenomenon, and there was a similar abundance of food and beverages at Hardwick Hall over Christmas as was described at Haddon Hall centuries earlier, as Rachel explains: ‘No expense was spared by the family in the celebrations of Christmas as the wine and spirits ledger demonstrates; in one two week period over 35 bottles of champagne and 15 bottles of port and sherry were poured for the family and their guests.’ It seems Hardwick’s residents definitely knew how to throw a Christmas bash!
The workers on the Hardwick Estate were not left out of the celebrations either – they all received one day off and the maids were offered the choice of stockings, gloves or an umbrella, with the men receiving a cut of beef and loaf of bread as their Christmas gifts from the family.
The generosity of families of grand houses by looking after their staff at Christmas time was common practice at many estates across the county. At Kedleston Hall near Derby, the Curzon family showed their festive spirit each year by allowing their staff time off over the Christmas period. They even gave over the ground floor of the hall at Kedleston – including the grand Caesar’s Hall – to the staff to celebrate Christmas. Kedleston’s Visitor Experience Manager, Jonathan Turley, notes what took place on the estate: ‘The family would usually stay in the private family wing of the hall with friends, leaving the main central block of Kedleston covered up for this period of winter. However, they did allow the serving staff to celebrate their Christmas festivities in the hall itself, and in the Edwardian period the staff would have enjoyed a traditional Christmas dinner very similar to what many of us still eat at Christmas time today; with figgy pudding, sprouts and perhaps even crackers – which were a relatively new addition to Christmas, having been invented in the mid Victorian period. Most of the meat enjoyed at Christmas would have been reared on the estate and – as with many substantial country estates – there was a slaughter house, butchery and a game larder close to the main hall. In Kedleston’s case, they were all housed in the stable complex.’
Back to the festivities, and the servants even took part in games which were enjoyed at the dinner, including Snap Dragon where dried fruit was soaked in alcohol then set alight and people took it in turns to take one without getting burned.
The Curzons allowed their staff to enjoy some respite from daily duties over Christmas, as Jonathan continues to explain: ‘Generally, most staff were given the time off, which is why the family battened down into the family wing at Kedleston Hall. Of course the family, too, would have had a feast, and certainly by the Edwardian era this would have been turkey or goose. As far as we know the main hall was never “officially” decorated for Christmas, although Caesar’s Hall would have seen a bit of greenery for the servants’ party.’
The modest but attractive church at Kedleston, located just metres from the main house, would have been used for Christmas services and carols throughout the Christmas period, as the congregations flocked to mark the birth of Jesus within the intimacy of ancient church walls. This show of devotion would have taken place in the hundreds of estate and parish churches across Derbyshire, a custom still practiced today by thousands of people in the county at Christmas time.
Visit the historic houses and their churches across the county for yourself this Christmas, where generations of grand families and their staff celebrated the festive period.
Christmas at Haddon Hall, 4-15 Dec, 10.30am to 4pm. Go back to Tudor times as blazing log fires, swags of evergreens and the smell of oranges and cinnamon greet you. Call 01629 812 855 or view
The Hall is open from 4-22 Dec, Wed-Sun, 11am to 3pm. Red and gold decorations bring the sense of a true family Christmas back to Hardwick. Visit the Hall (including family crafts and activities), try a delicious meal from the new seasonal menu in the restaurant or go Christmas shopping in the gift shop, open Mon-Sun 9am to 5pm. Christmas market on 7 Dec with regional food and crafts; ‘Festive Murder Mystery’ on 7 and 13 Dec, 7pm. Call 01246 858400 or see www.nationaltrust.org.uk/hardwick
A Christmas of Past Presents – 7-8, 14-15, 21-22 Dec, 11am to 6.30pm. Unwrap a traditional Christmas searching for hidden presents in the house. Children’s crafts, visit Father Christmas in his grotto and as darkness falls experience the illuminated grounds. Contact 01332 863822 or see www.nationaltrust.org.uk/calke-abbey
Festive Family Fun Trail – 30 Nov, 1, 7-8, 14-15, 21-22 Dec, 11am to 4pm. Solve Bolsover Castle’s festive mystery to earn your prize. Call 01246 822844 or see www.english-heritage.org.uk/daysout/properties/bolsover-castle
Christmas at Pemberley, Pride & Prejudice exhibition, themed events and activities, weekends thro’out and 26-27 Dec.
Call 01663 762023 or see
Tissington Hall & Village
Tissington Village Christmas Weekend, 30 Nov-1 Dec, 11am to 7pm. Explore the Tissington village businesses for a day of festive fun. From children’s activities to mulled wine and festive fayre. Tissington Hall open for guided tours from 12–3pm and businesses open until 7pm for Christmas shopping.
Call 01335 352200 or
view www.tissingtonhall.co.uk for details.
Eyam Hall and garden are open on various dates from 4-28 Dec, 10.30am to 3.30pm. The shop opens all year except Christmas Day, 10.30am to 4.30pm. Call 01433 639565 or view www.nationaltrust.org.uk/eyam-hall-and-craft-centre
The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe, 9 Nov to 23 Dec, 11am to 5.30pm. Chatsworth presents a magical journey around the lower floors of the house, complete with decorated trees, snow and sleighs, in a festive celebration of the popular children’s novel.
Call 01246 565300 or go to
The hall is open for tours by appointment only from 17 to 20 Dec at 3pm. Roaring fires, Christmas tea and mulled wine with tours of ancient Casterne Hall taken by the Hurt family who have lived at Casterne for over 600 years. Tickets £12 include tour, mulled wine and a Christmas tea. Call 01335 310489 or see www.casterne.co.uk
Christmas at Kedleston with various festive activities and family events from 6 Dec to 1 Jan, including: Breakfasts with Santa, Santa’s grotto, children’s crafts and winter walks. In the house the state apartments’ furnishings will be covered in white sheets, producing a traditional, yet new form of festive decoration. Call 01332 842191 or view www.nationaltrust.org.uk/kedleston-hall
Christmas Traditions Past and Present – various days between 7-22 Dec, 11am to 3.30pm. The Hall will be decorated for Christmas, Father Christmas in his grotto and seasonal craft activities. Call 01283 585337 or see www.nationaltrust.org.uk/sudbury-hall-and-museum-of-childhood