Present and correct
The timings on Christmas day should be exactly like any other day, but with a sense of added excitement. Running a large household such as Downton’s demands structure. Servants get no time off: without them, the house cannot function properly. A sense of spirit and joy should be maintained at all times, however.
Deck the halls
Decorations go up just a few days before Christmas Day – not, as has now become common, months before. A tree is cut down by the staff, brought into the house and adorned.The theme should be stars or something that sparkles, to conjure the mystery of the night Christ was born in Bethlehem. Paper chains may be used, but boughs of evergreens decorated with ribbons along the banisters, for instance, are more appropriate.
A time for giving…modestly
Christmas is not a time for excess. A present among siblings should be something of utility that gives pleasure. Children of the family receive just a single gift. The great magic is the hanging of the stocking – a shooting stocking from Father’s drawer – on Christmas Eve, from the mantelpiece in the nursery or the end of the bed. It’s filled by Father Christmas with special, but not extravagant, gifts, including a small lump of coal and a piece of rare fruit.
Feasting fit for a lord
Luncheon is a feast for the family (the staff have cold meats later, below stairs). Smoked salmon, followed by goose, turkey or a prime cut of beef are the options, adorned with the best of whatever can be found: stuffings, rich sauces and exotic treats. Dates, imported from near Christ’s birthplace, are highly prized and best reserved in London stores well in advance.
Planning for the Christmas pudding starts beforehand, too. On the last Sunday before Advent in the Christian calendar, the mixture is stirred with a wish by everyone in the household (family and staff ), thus giving the copious amount of brandy the time it needs to souse all the rich ingredients thoroughly. On Christmas Day, brandy is heated in the servery, lit and poured across the pudding, so that on its arrival in the dining room – carried carefully by the youngest Hall Boy – it is a glow of blue flame.
The family drink chilled champagne and the staff may be granted various wines from the cellars to drink with their own feast by the head of the household, who may well make much of his lordly generosity.
Fresh air and family fun
A walk is taken after the feast. Fresh air and exercise, along with adherence to strict codes of morality, are the underlying mantras for life. Come sun or snow, the family must venture outside.
For entertainment, they sing carols to the accompaniment of the piano – staff may be invited to join in. Or they’ll play charades and pastimes such as Wink Murder, a murder mystery game in which a player is secretly assigned the role of killer (like the Countess Violet, below) and murders victims with a sly wink. To amuse the children, the family may play hide and seek, taking in the entire ground floor.
And so to sport
The festivities continue with a meet of the local hunt on Boxing Day and, a day or two thereafter, a pheasant shoot. Guests will be invited to make up a shooting line of at least eight guns.
Downton Abbey’s historical adviser Alastair Bruce was talking to Alexia Skinitis
Downton Abbey is on Christmas Day at 9.00pm on ITV