Christmas at Castle Howard
PUBLISHED: 19:27 07 December 2016 | UPDATED: 13:58 15 December 2016
The Hon Nicholas Howard reveals what festive life is like at Yorkshire's most famous family home.
As you start unravelling your tangle of tinsel, checking the fairy-lights for that singularly annoying dodgy bulb and dropping delicate baubles while swearing like a Bethlehem shepherd, just imagine what it must be like to decorate a house the size of Castle Howard.
Work began on this year’s spectacular decorations 12 months ago, with staff visiting Christmas shows in January to ensure the house provides unrivalled inspiration for the thousands of visitors who make an annual pilgrimage to enjoy the seasonal adornments.
‘We’ve been hanging great big reflective glass baubles in the house ever since I can remember,’ said Nicholas Howard, whose family built their North Yorkshire homestead in the 18th century and has lived there ever since. ‘Many of them are the same as the ones that hung when I was a child, possibly even when my father was a child. Seeing them going up makes me feel that Christmas has really arrived.
‘There’s a magical transformation that takes place in the Great Hall at this time of year. It changes from being an imposing, hard place to being a soft, welcoming room with a blazing fire, constant music and the sounds of happiness echoing back from the painted ceiling.’
As if dressing an 18ft Christmas tree was not sufficiently challenging, this year Castle Howard is going one step further by inverting the whole thing and displaying it in the Long Gallery. The tree, complete with gold roots, will be suspended upside down in the Octagon to provide an absolutely stunning centrepiece.
‘It sounded like a fantastic idea when we came up with it, but I’m not sure the groundsmen who had to get the large root structure through the doors during our test run would agree,’ said Kelly Smith, who’s responsible for planning the festive displays throughout the house.
Even at a lofty 18ft, the Long Gallery tree is not the largest in the house; that honour goes to the 20ft whopper in the Great Hall, which is dressed with around 2,000 baubles.
‘This tree requires a scaffold to hang all the baubles and takes a team of people most of a day to dress,’ said Kelly. ‘Many visitors are probably unaware that the tree will be replaced at least twice during the Christmas opening season – a mammoth, and well-rehearsed overnight task. This is because, from the day we open, we have open fires burning throughout the house, including in the Great Hall, and the lovely warmth they generate causes the trees to dry up.’
Refreshing all the festive displays is an ongoing process for the house team, particularly head of gardens Adele Hirst, who’s responsible for the fresh foliage, including a 38ft garland of fresh leaves which sweeps up the grand staircase and is refreshed every week.
Another new addition this year is a tree that doesn’t need decorating or watering as it’s made entirely of books.
‘We add new elements every year, and with a fantastic library of books to use, this tree should certainly be an unusual talking point,’ said Kelly.
While most of us happily throw open our doors at Christmas to family, friends and the odd carol singer (some odder than others), few of us would relish thousands of strangers trooping through our homes. The Howards, however, are used to sharing their beautiful house with 250,000 people every year, and actively look forward to the public events that run throughout the Christmas period.
Christmas at Castle Howard
Castle Howard, where Christmas comes but once a year and runs from November 19th to December 23rd
The decorating team work hard to bring new ideas, like these stunning swirls, into the house to inspire the thousands of festive visitors
Twinkling baubles make a note-perfect addition to the Music Room
Twigs from the 10,000-acre estate are given the full festive treatment
Can you spot the lone black swan amid this twinkling sea of winter white?
All present and correct in the Turquoise Drawing Room
You need a great tree if you’ve got a Great Hall – this one is 20ft tall and is decorated with around 2,000 baubles
The house might be big, but the small details still matter – even a seemingly insignificant window ledge gets a festive spruce-up
A simple colour palette gives the traditional China Landing a stylish, contemporary twist
The goddess Fortuna gets into the festive spirit
Lady Georgiana’s bedroom is bathed in Christmas light, thanks to a beautifully illuminated tree
A pair of crisp, ice-white trees add drama to the Museum Room
Christmas at Castle Howard
Numerous garlands of both fresh and decorative foliage, like this lovely example from the Great Hall, are draped around the house
shopping for decorations
Deck the halls at Castle Howard
Castle Howard lights up
Traditional toys to fill a nursery
Toys on guard
Ready for the big day
Is there a tree big enough
Trees for the season
Home for Christmas
‘I’m particularly looking forward this year to the arrival of the Gingerbread Castle Howard, made by Bompas & Parr,’ said Nicholas. ‘It’s going to be surrounded by many of the other great buildings here, like the Temple of the Four Winds, the mausoleum and even the old Castle Howard railway station complete with a working train.’
So, while the rest of us are fighting over the last sprout (‘You have it!’; ‘No, you have it!’) and discussing at length why people still buy each other talc, what’s happening over at the Howards’ place?
Is Christmas at the castle so very different from the festivities in our own homes?
‘For me, the best part of waking up on Christmas morning is that moment of opening the curtains and hoping against hope that there will be snow on the ground,’ said Nicholas. ‘Castle Howard in the snow, with its gilded lantern, becomes one great big Christmas decoration.
‘As for the rest of the day, it feels as if the running order has been the same for ever, but of course it’s changed down the years.
‘So much of Christmas is about indulgence but that’s always balanced by the Christmas Day church service. At Castle Howard, even that’s got an element of indulgence to it as we only have to walk from one side of the house to the other and we’re in the chapel. My father always used to embarrass us children by singing the carols in Latin – Adeste Fideles for Oh Come All Ye Faithfull. He had a very strong voice. It’s probably time I started doing it.’
Few – if any – of us have 300 years of family Christmases in the same house to look back on, but we all have magical memories that emerge every December as soon as the satsumas start appearing in the fruit bowl and mum starts frantically wrapping socks. For some, it’s a fond recollection of a particularly longed-for present or an ill-advised festive jumper, but for Nicholas it’s all about his nearest and dearest.
‘I think anyone’s memories of Christmas tend to be made up of people – of parents, of siblings, of relations and friends,’ he said. ‘Many of them are gone now but it’s a time when all the memories seem to be happy ones, which is how it should be.’
Castle Howard’s Christmas season runs from November 19th to December 23rd, with a special ‘twilight opening’ on December 18th. For details, visit castlehoward.co.uk
Gingering up proceedings
An elaborate gingerbread replica of Castle Howard is set to be the centrepiece of the stately home’s Christmas experience this year.
‘As anyone who has visited knows, scale is something that Castle Howard knows a thing or two about, and our Christmas gingerbread house is no exception,’ said Victoria Howard, Nicholas’s wife, who commissioned the piece.
The model depicts the house as it was originally designed by Sir John Vanbrugh, including buildings by Nicholas Hawksmoor and the much later Castle Howard railway station, famously used by Queen Victoria.
The grand gingerbread design is the brainchild of the UK’s top experts in architectural food, Bompas & Parr.
‘It’s an expensive project, but visitors would be disappointed if it was not breathtaking in both its artistry and scale,’ said Victoria. ‘It’s investments like this that help us attract more than 250,000 visitors each year from every corner of the globe.’
Tea for yule
Castle Howard’s head chef David Haynes, who honed his skills in Bettys’ development kitchen, has created an exclusive Christmas afternoon tea for peckish yuletide visitors.
‘This is the first time we’ve offered people the chance to take tea by the warming fire in the festively decorated Grecian Hall, so it was important to create a menu and experience that matched the grandeur of the room,’ he explained. ‘There are seasonal flavours of sage, cranberry and chestnut with roast turkey and smoked salmon, as well as sweet treats like cranberry and orange scones, Kirsch and Griottine cherry cheesecake and, of course, the classic Christmas cake.’
:: A limited number of festive tickets, which include entry to the house, garden and afternoon tea, are available priced £39.95 per person from castlehoward.co.uk