Have yourself a merry little Downton Christmas by Jessica Fellowes
Much of what we know and love about the festive season today was already in place by 1912 and thanks to the American influence of Cora, a Downton Christmas would be particularly glorious. A fir-tree decked out in sparkling decorations that reached almost to the ceiling would be in the Great Hall with hundreds of toys wrapped beneath, presents for the children of the tenant farmers and local village, which would be handed out on Christmas Eve. Mistletoe is hung, pine and holly are laid on every surface, a yule log crackles in the fireplace and stockings are hung on the masterpiece.
Christmas Day at Downton is of course quite different depending on whether you are above or below stairs. The day begins with church for everyone, and afterwards the presents are exchanged. Lord and Lady Grantham are generous and kind to their servants, so will give more than the traditional bolt of cloth for the maids to make their uniforms or stiff white collars for the footmen. In the past, Carson has received a book of the history of European royal families, while Lady Mary gave Anna a locket, a token of her grateful affection.
To each other, the family are naturally indulgent. Lady Mary and Lady Edith may have gone to London to do their shopping, bringing back glass bottles of scent, fine silk stockings, small items of jewellery and leather-bound books as presents. Lord Grantham probably best appreciates a box of cigars. The Dowager Countess may have had to make do with finding her presents in the village, although I rather fancy she is the sort to ‘re-gift’ things she was given before and didn’t like.
Servants were traditionally given lunch off, to have their Christmas dinner and give their own gifts. With their small wages, these are not grand gestures but thoughtful items. Carson might find Mrs Hughes an umbrella for her rare trips outside. Anna and Bates will have spent time finding the right things for each other but will have been limited to the offerings of Ripon’s high street.
Upstairs, the family serve themselves cold cuts, while the staff have a jolly time in the Servants’ Hall with turkey and all the trimmings. After that, they have to get back to work, preparing for the family’s Christmas celebrations in the evening. The lack of festivities on the day is made up to them when the family host the Servants’ Ball a week or two later, at which the first dance is led by the Dowager Countess and Carson.
The family will dress in white tie for dinner – this means tiaras and long gowns for the women, with their finest jewellery worn. There’s a large house party, as the outer branches of the family tree have been invited to stay.
The food then, as now, is the centrepiece of the evening. Hampers will have been ordered from Fortnum & Masons and Harrods. Mrs Patmore has a larder stuffed with birds shot during the season’s shooting parties. There’s a plentiful supply of vegetables and meat from the home farm, with roast beef followed by plum pudding, flaming with brandy, as the stars of the show.
Afterwards, back in the drawing room, games are played. The favourite is The Game, a sort of ‘Give Us A Clue’, for those who can remember Lionel Blair’s version. The men will be keen to get to bed not too late, ready to be up early for next day’s shooting party.
Everyone will most certainly wish each other, as I wish you, a very merry Christmas.
Jessica Fellowes is author of The Chronicles of Downton Abbey, out now: http://amzn.to/SVpDLz
Follow Jessica on Twitter @jessicafellowes