A Country House Christmas
TUESDAY, DECEMBER 22, 2009
I am eight years old and live at Hall Garth, a large country house in Co. Durham, with my parents and my three brothers (an heir and two spares: ‘You’ve done very well, my dear Joan,’ says my grand-mother, condescendingly), a nanny, a nursery-maid, a cook, a butler, a groom who looks after my father’s hunters, a gardener whose wife does the cleaning helped by Mrs Speirs from the village, and old Mrs Tulloch, (who came from the Shetlands and tells me stories of her childhood there) who does the mending.
My Aunt Polly and her two sons usually join us for Christmas. Roland and Piers are two and five years older than me and call each other ‘Bros’ which I find incredibly grown up, though, in fact, it’s just prep school slang.
Carr, the butler, does the Christmas decorations in my parents’ part of the house: morning-room, dining-room, drawing-room and the two halls, but ignores the smoking-room, my father’s domain. He arranges artistic sprays of holly along all the large gilt picture frames with tasteful blobs of cotton wool for snow.
The Christmas tree is up in the nursery and smells wonderfully piny. We still use the Victorian metal candle-holders with real candles which you clip onto the branches. When lit, they flicker beautifully, especially if you jump up and down near them (strictly forbidden). There are fragile Victorian glass baubles, too, which gradually break.
Most exciting of all, Roland organizes games of ‘battle royal’. We upend the nursery furniture for barricades, share out the soft toys and hurl them at each other as hard as we can, never mind the bruises. Every now and then, Roland calls a truce to collect the toys in no man’s land. Heaven knows how we don’t burn the place down – though there is a bucket of sand by the tree in case of accidents.
On Christmas Eve, we hang up stockings at the end of our beds using my father’s knee-high woolly shooting socks (knitted by Mrs Tulloch).
The turkey for so many people is so huge it has to be cooked in the large 19th century oven built into the four feet thick wall in the Elizabethan part of the house. At eight, I am still eating with my brothers (and cousins) at the nursery table, so I don’t get to see the turkey in all its glory nor the flaming Christmas pudding. I am not considered old enough to eat in the dining-room downstairs.
I don’t suppose such a Christmas would have been out of place in the 1850s. No wonder I write historical novels!
I wish you all a terrific 21st century Christmas and all the best for 2010.
Elizabeth Hawksley www.elizabethhawksley.com