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An upstairs / downstairs Christmas (part one)

Planning for Christmas at an historic venue like Delapré Abbey starts very early in the year. Along with all the discussions about Christmas Fairs and events, we also have the enjoyable job of considering how to decorate the Abbey during the festive season. This year, with the success of our new Downton at Delapre tours, we wanted to provide our visitors with the opportunity to explore the differing Christmas experiences of the wealthy Bouverie family and their many servants in the late 19th century.

Many of the customs and atmosphere that we associate with a traditional Christmas today have their origins in the later Victorian period. At the beginning of the 19th century, Christmas as a holiday was hardly celebrated at all with shops and factories treating the 25th December as a normal working day.

The new queen and authors such as Charles Dickens transformed the public idea of Christmas – with food and feasting, decorations and gift-giving, entertainment and parlour games becoming an essential part of many family Christmas celebrations. By the end of Queen Victoria’s reign many of the traditional elements we associate with Christmas were firmly established, from the introduction of Christmas cards, and carol singing.

Although there had, since medieval times, been the tradition of decorating the house with winter greenery during the festive period, decorating the home at Christmas became an altogether more elaborate affair during the later Victorian period. The importance of Christmas décor was underlined in the 1881 Cassell’s Family Magazine which gave strict directions to the lady of the house: “To bring about a general feeling of enjoyment, much depends on the surroundings… It is worthwhile to bestow some little trouble on the decoration of the rooms“.

Mantlepieces, table centre pieces and staircases continued to be decorated with garlands of evergreens such as ivy, spruce and mistletoe but soon candles, glass baubles, paper chains and handmade trinkets were adorning the mantlepieces and Christmas trees for the better off. The Christmas tree, a German tradition, was popularised by Queen Victoria and became a focal point of Victorian decorations in middle class and aristocratic homes either standing on a table-top (traditional German) or a larger floor standing version (English style). Decorated with small toys and trinkets such as toy soldiers, wind-up toys and bells, gilded fruit and nuts, ribbons, gingerbread men and home-made decorations, the trees were often topped by an angel and lit by that Victorian home fire hazard, candles.

This new focus on decorations, food and entertaining in the home at Christmas was all very enjoyable for the upstairs Delapré Abbey family but meant an increased workload for their servants! In fact the servants were so busy ensuring a “family” Christmas for the Bouverie family there was not much of an opportunity for them to experience Christmas with their own families.

Find out more about a ‘downstairs’ Christmas in part two tomorrow!

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