I was rather pleased to find that we’d be celebrating Christmas at Downton. In many ways, it was a dream. The Abbey, aka Highclere, is a wonderful Christmas house. It has a splendid, double-height hall for a huge tree, masses of open fires and the sort of rooms – lined in panelling, books and huge paintings – that provide just the right backdrop.
Even today, in 2011, the country house Christmas hasn’t, I think, changed all that much from a Christmas of 1919, except that most people, however grand, will do a lot more of the cooking. And, then or now, it always seems to me that a country house Christmas, and Christmas generally, is a group effort.
Other feasts, birthdays and anniversaries, even New Year’s Eve, can be made all the sweeter by being alone with your loved one, but not Christmas. Christmas is about a house full of men and women, preferably of all ages, shouting, playing, eating and drinking, tearing wrapping paper off presents, forgetting who gave you what, feeding far too much to the dogs and so on.
And, just as I believe most of this is much as it has always been, I know I have barefacedly based Christmas at Downton on those of my own childhood.
I grew up in a fairly large, rectory-like house in East Sussex. It wasn’t beautiful or very special, really, but it had panelling, open fires and a big hall for the tree, even if it was an altogether humbler abode than Highclere.
When the yuletide season arrived , it s bedrooms would be crammed with a mixture of friends and family, old and young. Because my three brothers and I made a fractious basis for any party, my mother would always invite at least one semi-stranger, different every year.
I asked her about this curious detail years later and she nodded, saying, “It was the only way to make you all behave.” Like plenty of traditions that we think of as reaching back through time, Christmas as we know it is largely a Victorian invention, or from not very long before.
A good deal of the British way of Christmas in fact originated in Germany. It wasn’t, as one is often told, Prince Albert who imported the Christmas tree, but the almost forgotten Queen Adelaide, wife of William IV, who first presented the concept of a decorated tree to the bewildered English court.
Prince Albert was, however, a very enthusiastic Christmas celebrant. He loved the rituals, decorations and present-giving, and he and Queen Victoria embraced the central European tradition of giving presents on Christmas Eve, a practice still adhered to within the royal family, I believe.
It wouldn’t have done for my family, with half the house party screeching in through the gates on two wheels until late into the evening, and anyway I’ve always worried it must make Christmas Day itself rather flat. There were, and are, remnants of medieval English Christmas, of course.
Festoons of holly, ivy, mistletoe and, in Edwardian times, a great yule log that would be burned on Christmas night. A tradition of our son’s childhood was always to decorate a large log with holly and tinsel, which we’d then burn, sometimes with a luckless artificial robin held by a drawing pin in the heat of the flames.
There’s been a personification of the spirit of Christmas since the 15th century but, again, it was the Victorians who merged this vague if jolly figure with the specifically gift-giving St Nicholas. By 1919, Father Christmas was a fixture up and down the land.
The Crawleys would certainly have seen a lot of him as they trailed through shops in Yorkshire or London’s West End. In my own childhood, he had a special role in giving what were known to us as “tree presents”.
These grew out of our childish rage that all the giving and receiving was over too soon. Each of us had a couple of extra, lesser presents from under the tree, usually of the book or record variety, distributed by my mother at teatime.
For this, she dressed up as Father Christmas. I’m not quite sure why it wasn’t my father but, to my recollection anyway, my mother was always the one ho-ho-hoing and dishing out the last presents of the day.
An unlooked-for result of this curious custom was that my niece Jessica, then three years old, was heard to greet the Father Christmas on duty in Harrods with a cheery “Hello, Grandmama,” which must have puzzled the amiable out-of-work actor inside the fat suit.
At Downton, we start our show with the family exchanging presents before eating a light luncheon, while the servants feast below, which, without the servant element, was more or less what our family did.
This was after midnight mass on Christmas Eve, stockings to wake up to in the morning, and a breakfast consisting, invariably and slightly oddly, of ham and boiled eggs.
Our present distribution would be prefaced by singing Good King Wenceslas in a sort of conga round the hall, the choice of carol never varying since it was the only one my father knew the words to.
Friends often came in for a drink before lunch, afterwards there’d be a walk or a film on television and, at about five o’clock, tea, Christmas cake and the tree presents.
That ritual accomplished, the party repaired upstairs to change into black tie for dinner and after the feast was consumed and the crackers pulled, still wearing those terrifying paper hats, we’d play “The Game” and then fall contentedly into bed.
This same routine, in white tie, is largely observed in the Crawley household. I’m pleased to say that the loss of distinction between charades (where little playlets are acted out) and The Game (where titles are mimed), blurred by years of inaccurate TV shows, is clarified by Violet Grantham (Maggie Smith).
She seems the right mouthpiece for the argument when Sir Richard Carlisle (Iain Glen) makes the same mistake. Let’s hope there’s less confusion in future. Watching Mary (Michelle Dockery) act out her title to a shouting room, I confess to a slightly tear-making nostalgia for my own youth.
Of course, my wife and I have gone on with all this, and The Game still forms part of Christmas night for my family and our wretched, dragooned guests. But I suppose it’s at Christmas that we remember our parents most, and I for one give thanks for a childhood where that feast was celebrated with comfortable traditions embraced by us all.
Long may it continue, at Downton Abbey and everywhere else.