Celebrations and traditions in historical Buckinghamshire settings: Christmas 2016
PUBLISHED: 15:54 28 November 2016 | UPDATED: 15:54 28 November 2016
Venetia Hawkes looks at the Christmas celebrations and traditions in some of our most historic settings
Through the quietly darkening autumn evenings, busy hands are stitching and sticking, fashioning felt into characterful ginger-bread figures. “I don’t know if our volunteers will beat the 130 mice they knitted last year for our ‘Twas the Night Before Christmas theme” says Fran Penny, Operations Manager at Hughenden Manor, “we’ll have to count!” This Christmas, Hughenden Manor, near High Wycombe, will be under the spell of the Brothers Grimm, with rooms full of fairy-tales and romance. And ginger-bread men.
Hughenden was the home of Victorian Prime Minster and writer Benjamin Disraeli, and his beloved wife Mary Anne. Twelve years his senior, some contemporaries scathingly put the match down to her income of £5,000 per year, but soon learned to watch what they said around ‘Dizzy’, who was devoted to her. Mary Anne joked, “Dizzy married me for my money. But, if he had the chance again, he would marry me for love.” A trip the couple made to the forests of Germany has inspired the Brothers Grimm theme at Hughenden this Christmas.
In keeping with the 19th century literary connections of the house, Hughenden is portraying the original versions of the fairy-tales, which are imbued with a deeper, folk-loric, animalistic magic than the more familiar cartoon versions of the stories. A world of wish-granting fishes, wise foxes, enchanted princesses and lucky third sons; perils of chasing after empty riches and rewards of kindness. There are echoes of hard, every-day working lives woven alongside enchantment. When she longs to go to the ball, Cinderella, ‘Ashputtel’ as she’s called in the Brothers Grimm tale, is given the impossible task of separating out a bushel of peas from the ash in the hearth by her stepmother. It is Cinderella’s animal friends, rather than a fairy Godmother, which come to her aid.
The scholarly Brothers Grimms’ primary intended audience was adults rather than children, and there are darker elements in the original tales, later edited out. When it comes to trying to fit their feet into the slipper, Cinderella’s stepmother gives her own daughters, the Ugly Sisters, a knife to cut off their toes to make their feet smaller: “Never mind, cut them off; when you are Queen you will not care about toes.” There’s a Dark History of Fairy Tales talk (not suitable for children) at Hughenden on 6, 15 and 20 December. Hughenden’s rooms will be decorated with family-friendly fairy-tale scenes.
Children can also enjoy seeing Father Christmas, who will be visiting Hughenden at weekends. And there’s a trail through the house - hunting those Hansel and Gretel inspired ginger-bread men, hand-made by volunteers.
Fran Penny happily recalls a comment from last Christmas, “An older visitor said that for a couple of hours it made her feel like she was three years old again. That’s what we try to do – make it a magical experience for all ages.”.
There are more Once Upon a Time delights to explore at Chiltern Open Air Museum near Chalfont St Giles. A naturalistic costume drama comes to life as the Museum’s little red tin church, thatched cottage and wooden barns, decked in their winter best, play host to historic re-enactors The Mannered Mob, to celebrate a Georgian Christmas.
Christmas had been banned in the mid 17th century, Cromwell allegedly condemning it as “giving liberty to carnal and sensual delights.” By the 18th century the sensual delights of Christmas were back on the menu. George I was known as the Pudding King from his love of Christmas Plum Pudding – which had also been banned as a ‘lewd custom’, ‘unfit for God-fearing people’.
In the Georgian period a tradition developed to stir lucky symbols into the pudding mixture, foretelling your fortune depending what you found in your slice. A silver coin represented wealth, a wishbone good luck, a thimble thrift, a ring marriage and an anchor safe harbour.
In the class driven Georgian world, it was usually the upper and middle classes who decorated their homes with greenery for Christmas. In 1800, George III’s wife, Queen Charlotte, had perhaps the first Christmas tree in Britain, bringing the tradition from her native Germany; though it was a picture of Prince Albert and Queen Victoria with theirs in the London Illustrated News of 1848 that popularised Christmas trees.
Boughs of mistletoe became associated with Christmas in the Georgian era. Long symbolising fertility and the evergreen promise of spring during the darkness of winter, there was a tradition that no unmarried girl could refuse a kiss under a Christmas mistletoe bough. With each kiss, one of the mistletoe berries was removed. When all the berries were gone, the bough was thrown outdoors and any girl who’d not received a kiss was destined not to marry during the coming year.
At Chiltern Open Air Museum, The Mannered Mob, in their hand-stitched clothes, will be celebrating Georgian Christmas; cooking vintage recipes over open fires, demonstrating crafts and there’ll even be a Georgian Parish Constable to keep the peace, should any revellers get too rowdy.
Mannered Mob chairman, Victoria Greenshields’ favourite part of Georgian Christmas is the communal feasting. “Feasting was a huge part of it,” she explains, “there’d be a mix of sweet and savoury dishes together on the table.”
Elsewhere at Chiltern Open Air Museum there’ll be singing and market stalls on the village green; the 1940s Prefab will have war-time ‘make-do and mend’ decorations; children can have a go at some festive crafts; and Father Christmas will be putting in an appearance – travelling by one of the museum’s Heavy Horses.
You can savour more winter traditions at Waddesdon Manor, north of Aylesbury. The spectacular French style château has a sticker trail for children to follow round its elegant rooms, finding ‘Jolly Gingers’ – ginger-bread biscuits made by specialist company The Biscuiteers.
It’s believed ginger-bread was first baked in Europe around the late 11th century, when returning Crusaders brought the custom back from the Middle East. It became a popular art form in Europe, with elaborately decorated biscuits being given as love-tokens or worn as protection in battle or against evil spirits. Throughout the Middle Ages, guilds of Master Bakers jealously protected their right to make ginger-bread. Everyone else was only allowed to make it at Easter and Christmas. By the 19th century, a tradition developed of making Christmas ginger-bread houses. At Waddesdon, The Biscuiteers are creating a ginger-bread house of Waddesdon itself, including iced miniatures of its paintings and furnishings. It takes 240 eggs and over 500 hours to make.
Waddesdon will be continuing its unique take on the age-old tradition of using light to banish the darkness of winter during the shortest days of the year. As dusk falls, the front of the house, with its turrets fit for a princess, will be lit with a rainbow of colours. And light installation artist Bruce Munro, whose works have illuminated the V&A Museum, The Guggenheim and the desert surrounding Uluru in Australia, will be brightening the grounds of Waddesdon once more with a 25th anniversary incarnation of Munro’s ‘Field of Light’ - hundreds of softly glowing flower-like bulbs set in the landscape, ethereal fairy-paths curving through the shadows.
Conjuring up a mountain village, little wooden chalets on Waddesdon’s terrace will form a traditional Christmas market. The house itself will have decorations inspired by historic ‘magical materials’ in its collection - from the Pompadour Pink of Sevres porcelain to the sparkle of Venetian glass.
Embracing everyone’s new favourite Scandinavian tradition, Hygge – the art of well-being through cosiness, is Waddesdon’s Wigwam café. A fairy-light decked tent where you can snuggle up on a sheepskin, sipping a hot chocolate, after a walk in the fresh winter air; enjoying coming in from the cold to the warmth of fire and friendship, as people have done for centuries.
So push aside the heavy hanging coats and to-do lists, the shopping and bustle, find your way to the back of the wardrobe and be transported to your own Once Upon a Time magical world this Christmas. Without having to go as far as Narnia. As that other great collector of fairy-tales Hans Christian Anderson wrote, “Life itself is the most wonderful fairy-tale.”