Celebrating 20 years of Christmas at Chatsworth House

The Lion the Witch and the Wardrobe (2013)

The Lion the Witch and the Wardrobe (2013) - Credit: Chatsworth House Trust

Celebrating 20 years of festive themes at one of Derbyshire's - and the country's - finest stately homes

As Chatsworth House reflects on 20 years of spectacular Christmas decorations, this year the profound theme of magic lies at the heart of a spectacular celebratory new display.  

Magic is synonymous with Christmas. It’s rooted within the season’s most joyful and nostalgic traditions; from leaving a glass of sherry for an expectant visitor, watching a flurry of snow through a frosty window or time spent with family and friends. 

For Chatsworth’s dedicated and close-knit team, this year’s decadent exhibition will be the culmination of months of organisation, planning and preparation.  

Hugely anticipated and sorely missed by visitors last year, it’s set to be arguably the most surprising and memorable displays to date, continuing a rich tradition of festive interiors for a treasured historic property dating back to the 16th century. 

‘During Victorian times Chatsworth, even as a private home, was open to visitors and would have been decked for the season with natural foliage - the idea would have been visible in many ways,’ explains Susie Stokoe, creative lead and head of the textiles department. 

‘In terms of large-scale Christmas exhibitions, 20 years ago Chatsworth were leading and creating it in a different way. 

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‘We felt our 20th anniversary this year is an occasion to be really proud of, it’s absolutely something that has to be celebrated.  

‘Lady Burlington in particular wanted to capture the essence of this Christmas magic - not in the sense of abracadabra, but the way in which our displays have captivated our visitors. Ultimately, we are aiming to capture the essence of that magic with a nod to the past two decades.’   

During 2001, the year of the foot and mouth outbreak, the displays were initially proposed to be a one-off event to help the local economy by encouraging visitors to the surrounding area.  

‘The decorations were intended to give people a lift and something to enjoy whilst encouraging economic growth and positivity in the area as a response to the devastation of the crisis,’ recalls Susie.  

‘This year, I feel there is an emotional comparison in creating a very special space for visitors to enjoy; where they can come with friends and family to have fun – it’s a simple escape and I feel there is a similarity in that respect.’ 

Each year when considering a new Christmas theme, Chatsworth place great importance on listening to visitors’ opinions in order to uses these key viewpoints to form part of a new concept ‘as well as my bonkers imagination!’ jokes Susie.  

‘Although regardless of any theme, ultimately, this is a family’s space, there is a sense that you are entering their home, it’s where they will spend Christmas; that gives it a warmth and an integrity that I think is rather special and is unique to Chatsworth.’  

As well as these important touchpoints, Susie’s creative thought process begins with a variety of different sources for inspiration, including visits to London during the Christmas period and having an awareness of popular culture.  

The Nutcracker (2016)

The Nutcracker (2016) - Credit: Paul David Drabble

‘I have a really good look around at prominent shop windows to view the themes, the colours, to understand if there is a sense of a particular story,’ she explains. 

‘I also make a note of new films and exhibitions – it will all influence a new concept. I’ll have ideas bouncing around my head for a few years, sometimes these will emerge and, if they are big enough, I’ll present them to the design team.’  

Due to the detailed content and complicated nature of the display, the planning process begins in spring for the following year, when Susie presents mood boards of her ideas to a committee for an initial consultation. 

‘Inevitably there will be tweaks,’ she says. ‘The design team will add to it and may possibly completely reject it, but by February, we will have a fully locked down concept.’  

This complex planning process involves numerous spreadsheets detailing a production and installation schedule involving the house and garden teams with a strict timeline of deadlines.  

‘It really is a military operation to plan the installation, which includes our enormous 24ft Christmas trees, over 200 metres of garland, 18,500 baubles and 35,000 bulbs, as well as scaffolding, ladders and mobile platforms - it’s a juggernaut!’ says Susie, smiling. 

Chatsworth celebrates its 20th anniversary of themed Christmases this year

Chatsworth celebrates its 20th anniversary of themed Christmases this year - Credit: Chatsworth House Trust

The creations begin during the summer, followed by a strict installation window of one week in October, which involves a team of around 60 people with a variety of skillsets. 

‘Certain installations require our textiles department and this year our joinery team have made a platform to protect the inner court fountain from a new spectacular snow scene which is a reference to our previous theme of Narnia.’  

As a part of the joinery team for over 40 years, Mark Rhodes reminisces on fond memories of creating unique carpentry pieces - all made within Chatsworth’s historic joinery workshop, which previously contained the estate kitchen until being converted after the Second World War.  

‘We have made such a variety of pieces down the years, including a mine for the Seven Dwarves, a bell tower, a street scene, Widow Twankey’s nine-foot pantomime washing machine and even a working kaleidoscope’ he recalls.  

This year within the Grotto, the joinery team have created a bespoke wooden plinth to house a turntable. The structure will enable a rotating crystal to project light around the room as it turns. 

Once Upon A Time (2018)

Once Upon A Time (2018) - Credit: Scott Merrylees Photography

‘We’ve also made a life size music box for the Chapel containing an antiqued mirror which will open and play music from the Nutcracker whilst projecting the image of a ballet dancer’ he describes. 

Due to the unusual and unexpected requests from the design team, Mark says he has thoroughly enjoyed the opportunity to create a variety of pieces appreciated by all ages.  

‘Over the past 20 years, visitors have come and brought their children who in turn now bring their children,’ he says.  

‘Interestingly, when I’ve brought my own family to test things out, I’ve noticed that it’s not always the big grand things that they like the most, it’s often the smaller things they really love to see and I always enjoy guiding them through the house to show them what we’ve made.’  

When previous displays coincided with major conservation work, Mark describes how the team incorporated the scaffolding through the building and created a series of tunnels, ‘it actually worked very well’ he says.    

This year’s winding Christmas route meanders through 24 rooms containing Chatsworth’s priceless collections of irreplaceable art and objects – a challenging environment to negotiate, as Susie describes.  

A Russian Christmas (2010)

A Russian Christmas (2010) - Credit: Chatsworth House Trust

‘We have the Devonshire Hunting Tapestries in the Sculpture Gallery at the moment – these are incredibly fragile; we’ve really had to think carefully about how we prevent these objects from being damaged.  

‘This has further confirmed the importance of avoiding the use of glitter and consider our green footprint.’  

Notably this year, Chatsworth’s conservation assistants have created hand crafted paper decorations, resonating with trends seen during the pandemic.  

‘As people were at home making things out of household resources, that’s a memory in itself – hanging a bauble on the tree and remembering the time spent with family in making it, I think that’s very special.’  

Susie adds that for one family, the decorations at Chatsworth have a special meaning, ‘each year they try to spot the Christmas bauble from the previous year – I rather like that it’s a tradition that’s continued in their family.’  

Complimenting these interior decorations, Chatsworth’s garden features an enchanting illuminated walk which interpretation and engagement manager Pamela Pearson describes.  

‘We want to give our visitors a bit of extra joy when they leave the house and create an experience which rises and falls, like a story or a film, something to settle into at the beginning - walking along with a sense of anticipation and building a journey.’  

Through the use of lighting effects to accentuate what is a natural part of the garden, a reference is made to this year’s theme inside the house which features kaleidoscopes and crystals.  

Pantomime theme (2012)

Pantomime theme (2012) - Credit: Chatsworth House Trust

‘We have been experimenting with the use of light on water and have created some interesting effects which add to a warm, magical feeling; creating an enchanting experience outside as well as inside, is exactly what we are aiming for.  

‘Although, ultimately the direction is set by the Devonshire family, by creating a place where families and friends can come together. This becomes part of people’s memories and it’s where Christmas begins for many visitors.’  

Pamela adds that Chatsworth’s enthusiastic team enhance her enjoyment in creating the garden Christmas walk.  

‘I cherish the process of working with such a passionate group of people who each year unleash their magic and love for Chatsworth,’ Pamela concludes.  

‘It’s a privilege to be part of such an amazing experience which is then reflected through the excitement and enjoyment of our visitors. 

‘It’s a joy to see their faces light up in having the most amazing day out – it’s really a wonderful thing to be a part of.’  

All visits to Christmas at Chatsworth must be booked in advance at www.chatsworth.org 

20 years of Christmas themes at Chatsworth 

2001: A Traditional Christmas 

2002: Christmas from other lands 

2003: A Victorian Christmas 

2004: Christmas through the ages 

2005: Aspects of Christmas 

2006: The 12 days of Christmas 

2007: A Christmas Kaleidoscope 

2008:  The First Noel  

2009: A Candlelit Christmas 

2010: A Russian Christmas 

2011: Deck the Halls 

2012: Pantomime 

2013: The Lion the Witch and the Wardrobe 

2014: Alice’s Wonderland at Christmas 

2015: Christmas at Chatsworth with Mr Toad 

2016: The Nutcracker  

2017: O Dickens it’s Christmas at Chatsworth 

2018: Once Upon A Time 

2019: In a Land Far, Far Away 

2020: Happy Christmas 

2021: The Magic of Christmas