Nearly 40 years ago Dr Alianore Fairfax-Lucy spoke to writer Sally Rowat about the Christmas celebrations she remembered at Charlecote as a teenager in the early 1900s.
The family’s gift of a haunch of venison to the parishioners was a traditional Christmas custom. ‘A few days before Christmas,’ Dr Lucy explained, ‘large sheets were spread on the surface of the great table in the servants’ hall, where a roaring fire burned. The haunches were brought in and laid there, each one bearing a little skewer with the name of the recipient. As the villagers processed through, armed with a bit of sheeting in which to receive their Christmas gift, Mother and Father stood there and wished them all a Happy Christmas.’
Ding Dong Merrily…
Stockings always greeted Christmas morning for the Fairfax-Lucy children. After breakfast, it was a walk across the parkland to church for the entire family, with all the servants. Back at the house after the service, final preparations for Christmas dinner got under way – but not for the family. ‘It was always a tradition that we waited on the servants and gave them their lunch,’ Dr Lucy remembered, ‘and then our parents – and the children when we were old enough – ate our Christmas dinner in the evening.’
Deck the Halls
She described the scene in the great servants’ hall. A roaring fire burned in the hearth, stags’ heads surveyed the scene below, and in the centre of it all stood the vast elm refectory table with benches either side. For once, the ‘downstairs’ pecking order went by the board. The entire staff sat down together to enjoy their annual Christmas treat. And the Fairfax-Lucy family, parents and children, served them with turkey and beef, with plum pudding and bread and cheese and, of course, with ale.
When all were replete, they sat awhile chatting; out came the clay pipes, and as they revelled in this reversal of roles, the children of the house washed up. ‘Many’s the time I spent Christmas afternoon with my hands in the sink,’ laughed Dr Lucy.
God Rest Ye Merry, Gentlemen
Finally, in the evening, the family ate their Christmas fare. The smaller children were sent up to bed at 6.30pm but their elders remained with their parents in the dining room where they enjoyed a similar repast to that served earlier in the day to their ‘downstairs’ family, with whom they enjoyed a close relationship, and with whom deep and lasting friendships sprang up. Most stayed for life, their place being taken by a son or daughter when they died.
Christmas at Charlecote meant haunches of venison, carol singers from the village walking up the long drive to the house for mince pies and mulled wine, parties in the Great Hall for starry-eyed village children, and the blurring of boundaries between the family and their servants for one special day.
Reproduced from ‘A Warwickshire Christmas’ by David Green; Alan Sutton Publishing