Deborah Devonshire

Christmas at Chatworth

A short history of festivities at the big house

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Not much was made of Christmas at Chatsworth in the 18th and 19th centuries. Diaries and letters hardly mention it. Prince Albert’s trees and decorations took a long time to reach Derbyshire and would have been wasted on the December air because there were no children here for nearly a hundred years. At the turn of the 20th century the grown-ups made up for this strange state of affairs at Christmas-time with homemade entertainment. The theatre in the house, which seats 250 people, was used every night and neighbours were roped in to take parts in the sketches between ambitious songs sung by Princess Daisy of Pless and other would-be opera stars among the guests. They moved in for the duration, so had lots of time for rehearsals. Mrs Hwfa Williams (where did she get that name?), the author of It Was Such Fun, an incredible chronicle of Edwardian high society life, tells us that the house was so hot at Christmas that it was almost unbearable. In Andrew’s granny’s time the temperature plummeted, and what people remember of her reign, 1908–38, was the intense cold.

Nevertheless, Christmas came to life again, as she had seven children. In due course they produced 21 grandchildren who, with their parents, stayed for most of the Christmas holidays, bringing nannies, maids, valets, grooms and ponies — they hunted with the High Peak Harriers on Boxing Day. Some of the nannies were keenly aware of the status of their charges. My sisters-in-law remember being told to sit down on their luggage in a passage while their nanny visited the best night nursery, which was already occupied by cousins who had arrived earlier. Granny had a famous cook who trained under Escoffier, no less. Mrs Tanner has left books of receipts and the Christmas food was rich and rare — as were the menus, which seemed to go on for ever. The dining room, schoolroom and nursery all had different menus. The poor children had to eat the hateful bland food thought suitable for their ages. Even the Christmas puddings were made of different ingredients according to where they would be eaten. Those for the staff were mostly suet and breadcrumbs mixed with stout and milk, whereas Mrs Tanner’s ‘Best Christmas Pudding — Buckingham Palace receipt’ included French plums, stoned raisins and half muscatels, plus half a bottle of brandy — underlining the great unfairness of life. It is too late to give recipes for these; they should have been made months ago, like the rich fruit cake in the Chatsworth farm shop which matures in the loft and is not sold till it is nearly a year old.

With my own family in Oxfordshire it was different. Seven of us children were a solid start. In the 1920s my mother gave a Christmas tree party for the Asthal and Swinbrook schoolchildren on Christmas Eve, with the parson as Father Christmas. She bought and wrapped a toy and a garment for each child and took infinite trouble over the list of ages and sexes. One year she settled on penknives for the boys. In 2004, these innocents would find themselves in the police station. Christmas Day routine never varied for us. Early-morning opening of stockings, church, undoing presents (‘the festival of paper’, my mother called it), lunch of turkey and plum pudding with sixpences, bachelor’s buttons and other anti-Health and Safety charms embedded in it, and after dark a card game so simple that the youngest and stupidest of the children (me) could play. Fancy dress in the evening — anything to hand was seized on. Nancy was always the most imaginative. My father’s only concession was to wear a red wig. He took the group photograph so was never in it. My mother must have been thankful when it was all over.

It starts in October now. The Chatsworth farm shop is packed with things to eat and people to buy them, its reputation having spread since its quiet start in 1976, when we only had planning permission to sell hunks of freezer meat. The hampers are sent hither and thither to corporate and private buyers galore. Some, I’m glad to say, prefer us to the famous London shops. The butchery counter is crammed with 745 turkeys, 50 geese, 400 hams and a goodly show of our own beef and lamb.

Our children, grandchildren and 12 great-grandchildren come to stay in alternate years. It is odd having middle-aged grandchildren, and some of the greats are getting on. The change in them in two years is fascinating to see. The five-year-old, who told an inquiring schoolfriend last year that he was going to a public house for Christmas, will probably give a dissertation on Euclid next year when he is seven. Stone passages apparently constructed for roller-skating come in useful when it is wet. There are hazards which make it more exciting, like a long ramp where you get up the speed to crash into the door of the boiler room, hundreds of yards and two staircases away from the comparative safety of the nursery. For the intervening Christmas come old (very) friends — 92 is the oldest this year — plus a wheelchair cousin who will be whirled up and down the corridors by a nine-year-old, I hope with some notion of safety. It’s no good sinking into the chair after lunch. Whatever the weather the hens must be fed before 3 p.m. The midwinter light disappears over the woods to the west at that moment. No sensible hen stays out of doors after dark or the foxes, which our government adore, would get their all-time Christmas dinner.

Like everywhere else in the country, the spectre of foot-and-mouth caused havoc at Chatsworth in 2001. Andrew suggested the house should stay open till Christmas to recoup the losses, and so it has remained. People come from all over England to see it decorated and lit by candles (yes, candles) and the house shops turned into fairyland. No one from outside advises; the regular staff do it and seem to be inspired so that the result pleases all who come. Well, nearly all. Last week I got a letter saying how awful the shiny wreaths round the heads of Roman busts are (tacky) and what frightful taste I have to allow such a travesty. ‘There is no artistic flair to enhance the aesthetically pleasing rooms....The decorations do not reflect the quality of the works of art. A Rembrandt next to a tinsel-draped statue...’. So we can’t please everyone, but I think Christmas without tinsel, however close to a Rembrandt, would be tragic.