When I was a very little girl, we spent every Christmas with my grandparents who lived in Sussex. My father is one of four boys – his younger brother, Julian, is the writer and creator of Downton Abbey – and we would all pile into the house, the brothers with their various wives and children, where my grandmother would make a huge fuss of us. She absolutely adored Christmas, and I can still recall with total clarity the excitement I felt at arriving there.
My Christmases now are really about trying to recreate everything she did. So it’s not a truly festive event for me without her traditions. On Christmas morning, every single person in the house, no matter their age, woke up with a weight on their bed – a long woollen sock bursting with silly, pointless and funny presents, as well as a tangerine in the toe.
Dressed up and having already eaten at least six chocolates, we would go downstairs and start preparing the food for the day. A Bloody Mary would be given to the cook (my grandmother) by 11am. The children were instructed to take the presents from under the tree and disperse them on different chairs around the drawing room – one each. Smoked salmon on buttered brown bread was served shortly after midday, and glasses of champagne were poured. Then we filed outside the drawing room door and entered the room singing ‘Good King Wenceslas’ very loudly. Presents were torn into, and loudly exclaimed over, ripped paper covered the floor.
At about two o’clock, just as an uncle was settling down for a snooze and the first toy had already been broken, everyone would be rallied into going for a walk. We’d come back, steaming and ready for more at teatime – this is when Christmas cake and mince pies were served. My grandmother also did ‘tree presents’ – these were extras that only had labels saying who the present was for but not who they were from. This is because she would have dressed up as Father Christmas, complete with long white beard, ho-ho-ho-ing, to distribute the presents. I knew it was her but was pretty much convinced that this made perfect sense. The story goes that when taken to Harrods to meet Father Christmas, I asked why it wasn’t Grandmama’s knee I was sitting on…
After this, everyone disappeared upstairs for hot baths and to change into our most glamorous outfits, down in time for more champagne at 7pm. Then it was the main event – Christmas supper. A heavily decorated table, with crackers and shiny stars, red napkins and an array of wine glasses, would await us, ready to be laden with food – cranberry sauce, bread sauce, roast turkey, brussel sprouts, roast potatoes, roast parsnips, carrots, gravy… You know the score. Christmas pudding would come in only once the lights had been turned off and the brandy lit – the sprig of holly on the top would be burned to a crisp. Served with brandy butter, of course.
Groaning, full and not a little tipsy, everyone would heave themselves back into the drawing room, where they’d be perked up into a few rounds of The Game – a sort of ‘Give Us A Clue’, with two teams divided up, desperately miming out titles of books, films and pop songs. If we could still keep going, we’d do In The Manner of The Word, too, where you act out scenarios in the manner of a given adjective and everyone has to guess what it is (happily, stupidly, boringly etc). Then we’d collapse into bed. Nothing much happened on Boxing Day at all. It was, every year, absolute perfection and I love Christmas still.
Jessica Fellowes has written two books celebrating the entire six series of Downton Abbey, THE WIT AND WISDOM OF DOWNTON ABBEY and DOWNTON ABBEY: A CELEBRATION are available in hardback and ebook now.
MERRY CHRISTMAS FROM EVERYONE AT TEAM BOOKENDS!