'We do just as well -- but without the footmen...'
Naughty knickers and 234 sprouts? What really happens at Downton Abbey at Christmas? Glenda Cooper reports from Highclere Castle
Published 25/12/2011 | 05:00
IF by 9pm on Christmas Day your house is covered in torn wrapping paper, the turkey still needs several hours to cook, and the baby has swallowed the final Trivial Pursuit segment, no one would blame you for turning on Downton Abbey and wishing that your Christmas resembled that of the Countess of Grantham: nothing to do but put on a fabulous frock and place a few artfully wrapped presents under the tree before enjoying a relaxing waltz.
Impossible to achieve? Not at all, according to the countess's real-life equivalent -- Lady Carnarvon, chatelaine of Highclere Castle in Berkshire, where the popular period drama is filmed. If your Christmas is at risk of being more downtown than Downton, she has a strategy to ensure it has an aristocratic touch: plan ahead, organise place settings for Christmas lunch and invest in some embarrassing knickers.
"Our Christmas is surprisingly similar to those held here 100 years ago," says Fiona, the 8th Countess of Carnarvon, who has written a book about her predecessor Almina, on whom the character of Downton's Lady Cora is based.
"We have fewer staff and simpler food, but we watch very little television, we play charades like they did, and I refuse to let Christmas begin before December 1."
Still, the current Lady Carnarvon -- a former senior auditor at Coopers & Lybrand -- has a formidable task before her. Christmas cards? She has 500 printed (always a picture of the castle taken by her husband that year).
She has no idea how many presents she sends, but has a "very nice lady called Jenny" to help wrap them all up. As for her choice of presents: "I suppose it's my Scottish nature but I don't want to give a present that's not practical -- I can't bear wasting money."
And how on earth do you decorate a castle with around 300 rooms? Forget plastic, go au naturel, she advises. "I love to use things from the estate.
Mistletoe and holly hang over the doorways. Early narcissi and dogwood can be arranged around the place. I put poinsettia and cyclamen in big pots in the gallery -- and, of course, oranges and lemons in the alcoves, then you have the most wonderful smells throughout the house."
At 15 feet, the tree, which stands at the same end of the hallway -- known as the saloon -- as it did in Lady Almina's day, is smaller than the one ITV installed for the Downton Abbey Christmas Special. Yet it still takes a couple of gardeners a full morning to put it up. "I can't tell you how many baubles I bought in Peter Jones, but we are talking hundreds of pounds," she says.
She believes family is crucial to Christmas: the earl and countess welcome the countess's five sisters, their families and her childhood nanny to Highclere; a party of around 26 who stay for up to 10 days. "That's similar to how many Lady Almina had," says Lady Carnarvon. "Of course, the difference is the number of staff."
Ah, yes. For a smooth-running Christmas Day in the early 20th Century, Lady Almina would have had 14 footmen (in powder, lacquer and navy uniforms with gold buttons), a butler, an underbutler, a major domo, a groom of the bedchamber, a lady's maid, an everyday cook, French chefs, a Sri Lankan chef (on hand to make the 5th Earl's favourite curry), and "many more" kitchen maids and room maids.
The Carnarvons will have seven or eight staff working on Christmas Day, likely to be their head chef, sous-chef, a part-time butler and two banqueting managers, who serve the family lunch and dinner. And while Almina would have served a fish consomme, goose, rabbit, and turkey for Christmas lunch, her descendants will serve plainer fare - the countess advises against over-indulgence. "Sometimes the chef suggests smoked salmon and scrambled eggs for Christmas breakfast, but I'd rather keep it simple -- we have porridge and perhaps some croissants."
Like her predecessor, Lady Carnarvon believes in keeping to schedule.
"Some people may not make it down for breakfast but they know 10.30am is when we leave for Highclere church -- the church is what Christmas is all about. We come back for champagne or Bloody Marys by the fire in the library. It's wonderful when it's a lovely snowy day like last year and the cedars outside are dusted with ice."
The meal can be one of the most stressful parts of Christmas Day. Two key things ensure it runs smoothly: place settings and silly presents. "I always do a formal placement for lunch," says Lady Carnarvon. "It solves all arguments: you don't have a choice, you just have to get on with people.
"And there's always an embarrassing present for everyone on the table -- something like a dreadful pair of knickers, and then, of course, we all end up shouting 'Put them on your head!' Everyone's roaring with laughter and it really breaks the ice, particularly if we've invited friends and family."
Christmas lunch is "simple" and brief so the staff can be released to eat their own meal: no starter, turkey ("because the children would say no to goose") and all the trimmings, washed down with a 1933 Madeira.
Simple, yes -- but this still requires two 26lb turkeys, extra turkey breast meat, 78 roast potatoes and 234 Brussels sprouts. A huge Christmas pudding "stuffed with money" follows, with 3lb of brandy butter because Nanny is "very partial to it". It's followed by a brief walk and the Queen's Speech at 3pm. Only then are the presents opened.
Here Lady Carnarvon admits that, like many mothers, she may lose control.
"We put Nanny in charge of present opening but it starts to become an extraordinary mess, with my husband shouting, 'Tell me who that's from!'
Sometimes my sister Sarah and I go for a walk and leave them all to it."
Another important part of a Highclere Christmas is avoiding ending up slumped in front of the television. Like the Crawley family, the Carnarvons are fond of charades. (The earl's attempt at Raiders of the Lost Ark last year had the family crying with laughter, apparently.) Lady Carnarvon does admit that this year the family will gather round the small television in her study to watch their fictional counterparts. But that's it: to stave off arguments and boredom, it's important to do different activities. "Afterwards we'll do a quiz in teams, and then on Boxing Day we'll have the local shoot, or do a two-and-a-half hour walk up Beacon Hill," before sitting down to "Highclere Castle turkey curry" and the family favourite: fried Christmas pudding -- "really naughty but delicious after it's been fried in butter with a little demerara sugar".
And finally, for those whose Christmas doesn't quite go as smoothly as the Carnarvons: don't worry. The countess admits that even she won't achieve a true Downton Christmas -- not one as writer Julian Fellowes probably imagined it.
"Just as well," she says. "We don't want people dying in flagrante or of the Spanish flu halfway through, do we?"
'Downton Abbey Christmas Special' is on ITV1 at 9pm on Christmas Day. 'Lady Almina and the Real Downtown Abbey' by the Countess of Carnarvon is published by Hodder & Stoughton