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An upstairs / downstairs Christmas (part two)

Read part one here.

The extra workload of Delapré Abbey’s servants at Christmas during the late 19th century included cleaning and managing the house to accommodate guests and other entertaining, food preparation, and of course decorating too. The outdoor staff including the gardeners and gamekeepers would also be kept busy – providing game for Christmas meals and ensuring a steady supply of hothouse fruit such as grapes, pineapples and melons, and providing greenery and a tree from the estate for the decorations.

The contrast between the elaborate decorations in the family rooms with the decorated trees, elaborate garlands and centrepieces, and the rather more restricted decorations in the servant spaces was very marked. The senior servants such as the housekeeper or butler may have had a small Christmas tree in their rooms but if there were any Christmas decorations in the servants spaces they would consist of homemade paper chains and greenery from the estate. Of course the servants would most likely have had Christmas cards to display – invented in 1843, the sending of Christmas cards really took off with the introduction of the half penny post – by 1881 over 11 million Christmas cards a year were being sent!

As Christmas Day focussed on the experience for the Bouverie family, their servants would not have been able to spend that time with their own families and instead have to wait to St. Stephens day for their own Christmas celebrations.

Known as Boxing Day after the tradition of giving Christmas boxes (money and gifts) to tradespeople and servants, the 26th December was when servants would have the opportunity to spend time with their families (assuming they lived close enough to visit) as well as enjoy their Christmas meal. The upstairs family would make do with a family high tea on Boxing Day freeing the servants to enjoy their own Christmas dinner – this would probably include roast meats, punch to drink and a boiled plum pudding and Christmas cake but of course this would be nothing like the scale of the family meal on the previous day.

Boxing Day was also when the servants might receive presents from their employers – the importance of giving a Boxing Day gift to staff was covered in many household management publications of the day. In 1872 Mrs Beeton impressed upon mistresses Mrs Beeton the need to ensure that the last quarter pay day (25th December) should include a “nice Christmas box to be added to encourage good service” whilst the 1889 Ladies Journal suggested that improving books, or gifts to promote tidiness or worthwhile activities such as shoe bags or a work basket were suitable gifts for all servants, dependant of curse on their rank in the household staff. The “Christmas box” was thus likely to be something practical and work related – such as new uniform or a dress length (bolt of cloth) for making up into clothing.

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Another Christmas tradition that may have been enjoyed by the servants of country houses such as Delapré Abbey was that of the Servant’s Ball. Commonly held at the end of December or early January, in many of the larger or aspiring country households of the Victorian period, the servant’s ball was an opportunity for servants to interact with their employers as equals – enjoying dancing and refreshments in the spaces usually reserved for the family and possibly with the opportunity to invite family, partners or friends. The origins of the servant’s ball can be seen in the medieval tradition of Twelfth Night – a time of mischief and mayhem when the tables were turned, and the servants became the masters. By the late Victorian period this had transformed into a rather more reserved and decorous custom of a servant’s ball where staff would interact with the family – wearing their own clothing, dancing with family members (still according to their rank of course) and enjoying food, drink and refreshments paid for by the household. More tactful families would retire early from the servant’s ball, leaving the servants to enjoy themselves in a slightly less awkward atmosphere!

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