Celebrating the Twelve Days of Christmas at Castle Howard
PUBLISHED: 00:00 30 November 2018
©2018 CAG Photography
It's an all-year-round project putting together a merry welcome at one family country house
Theatrical designers Charlotte Lloyd Webber and Bretta Gereke have returned to transform one of Yorkshire’s celebrated stately homes into a winter wonderland.
This year they are taking the Twelve Days of Christmas as inspiration for the festive decorating of Castle Howard in North Yorkshire. ‘The tradition of the Twelve Days of Christmas dates from the medieval period,’ says Charlotte. ‘It’s when 12 consecutive saint’s feasts created a prolonged break starting on Christmas Day (generally regarded as the first day) – a time for feasting, celebrating and wassailing – the forerunner to Christmas carolling when a special punch (wassail) was drunk in the fruit orchards to bless the trees for the coming year.
‘The Yule Log was part of this celebration, too – not a cake, but an actual tree trunk that would be burned over the 12 days. The holiday culminated with a Twelfth Night party (the equivalent of our New Year’s Eve today) during which a fabulous cake would be shared.
‘Hidden in the cake were a pea and a bean. The lady who found the pea would become queen for the night and the man who found the pea the king or Lord of Misrule who would preside over what was often a very carnival and mischievous atmosphere. Sadly the holiday was abolished by Victorian industrialists keen to get workers back to the factories but many of the traditions and rituals persist today.’
Planning for the Twelve Days of Christmas started at the beginning of the year and all the designs and proposals were agreed by the Howard family over the summer ready for work to begin creating the props and displays in an on-site workshop in early October.
‘Bretta and I are accustomed to creating beautiful designs for theatre sets, but you really have to up your game when you are creating this kind of immersive experience within Castle Howard,’ says Charlotte.
‘You don’t have the benefit of distance between your audience and what you create, so every decoration needs to be intricately adorned. The whole house was designed as a showpiece, so even our temporary installations have to match the magnificence of every room.’
An army of craftspeople and volunteers are involved in the project. Miniature model maker Mark Bond created a military Twelve Days of Christmas scene around a scale model of Castle Howard; fine art students from Scarborough College helped make props, supported by professional prop makers like Janet Easton, who created the pipers and drummers displayed as part of Bretta’s design for the Long Gallery. Even a specialist bird sculptor, Karen Fawcett, was called in to create turtledoves, French hens, partridges and swans.
And one new challenge for 2018 involved the tree in the Great Hall, which at 25ft, is believed to be one of the largest in the country. ‘This is a natural, cut tree and Castle Howard is not immune to the dropping of needles and wilting of branches experienced in homes throughout the country,’ said Abbigail Ollive, head of marketing. ‘The extended opening means that we need the display to remain perfect for longer than ever, so we’ve got a second tree on standby – if required. Our emergency plan involves every available member of staff stripping, removing and replacing the tree overnight so visitors the next day are none the wiser. The team is like the seven swans a-swimming – the beautiful elegance above the surface belies the incredibly hard paddling below.’
Christmas preparations are not confined to the house as different teams around the estate gear up for one of the busiest times of year. Butchers plan the stock they need to ensure everyone enjoys the finest meat and poultry on their Christmas tables; catering staff prepare to welcome thousands of requests for Christmas dinner from visiting groups and coach parties; the retail team stocks up with baskets of Christmas baubles destined for trees around the world plus unusual gift ideas.
Thousands of visitors are expected to make the trip to Castle Howard for the Christmas displays which will last 42 days in total including days between Christmas and New Year for the first time. ‘Traditionally, the last visitors were welcomed the day before Christmas Eve, and then the house was turned over to the Howard family for their own celebrations, remaining a private family home until it re-opens to the public at Easter,’ says Abbigail.
‘This year the Howard family has taken the decision to re-open after a three-day holiday to meet the growing demand for days out during Twixmas. We know how many people already head over to the estate to walk off festive excesses, and sharing the indoor Castle Howard Christmas experience with visiting friends and family is a great way to make the most of the holiday season.’ u
The Twelve Days of Christmas at Castle Howard runs from Saturday, November 17th to Monday, December 31st (closed Christmas Eve, Christmas Day and Boxing Day). The house and grounds open at 10am with last entry at 3pm during the week and 4pm on weekends. For more information and ticket details go to castlehoward.co.uk.