Celebrating Christmas in two of Northern Ireland's grandest homes: Larchfield Estate and Mount Stewart
Yuletide festivities were a real high point in the calendars of NI’s stately homes
In a two-part feature special, Lorraine Wylie visits some of our grandest houses to find out about festive feasts and present giving — and how the season is marked in modern times.
Situated mid-way between Ballynahinch and Lisburn, Larchfield Estate has had a succession of wealthy owners including the hereditary director of York Street flax spinning company Ogilvie B Graham, who bought the place in 1868.
Current owners Sarah and Gavin Mackie are gearing up for a magical family Christmas. But as Sarah explains, in the mid-19th century, Larchfield wasn't always as festive, especially for staff.
"Prior to 1968, when Leslie Mackie bought Larchfield, Christmas was considered just another working day," she explains.
"However, according to former employees, staff were allowed a half-day off on Boxing Day. The workload was exhausting. Housemaids were expected to carry jugs of hot water from the basement kitchen to the bedrooms upstairs - everything had to be kept piping hot.
"Whenever the family wanted something they rang the bell leading to the butler's pantry. Fortunately, Larchfield had a large staff so there was always someone around to answer them."
Employment rules were strict and often impacted employees' private lives.
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"Staff who wanted to marry had to ask permission from Colonel Ogilvie Graham. In fact, one couple, Olive Anderson and Hugh Kinghan, had to marry in Annahilt Church on Christmas morning as it was the only time they could get off. And there was no such thing as a honeymoon!
"Working in a big house wasn't always well paid. At one time, gardeners at Larchfield were paid around 20 bob a year. One retired employee recalled how as a boy he wasn't paid until the end of the year for work he'd done the previous summer."
Mrs Freda Wallace, daughter of Larchfield's former head gardener, lived on the estate between 1936-1945 and has vivid memories of Christmas at Larchfield.
"I knew Mrs Graham - we called her Granny Graham," she says. "She gave all the children on the estate Christmas presents. Once a wooden jigsaw, and once a Common Prayer and Church Hymn album - that was for Christmas 1944. My mother helped on a Thursday getting things ready for the market - she had money given to her at Christmas."
Sarah reveals how, for the owners of Larchfield, Christmas was much more festive.
"Upstairs, the family enjoyed a fire in each room. On Christmas Day the good china was laid out, the silver polished and everywhere beautifully presented. There was no electricity so the tree had real candles.
"They made their own entertainment, playing parlour games and singing. The staff had their own dining hall - but we now have a billiard table there."
So how do the Mackies celebrate Christmas today? "Choosing our Christmas trees is a favourite family tradition," Sarah says.
"We pull on the welly boots and go tramping through the estate in search of not one but three 14ft-high trees. We need one for the house, another for the barn and one for the orangery.
"Once we find what we want, we turn our tree decoration into a family event. The house is filled with relatives and we have a great time, listening to carols and enjoying the festive time together."
Larchfield's reputation as one of Northern Ireland's most prestigious wedding and corporate event venues, including its latest space, The Old Piggery dining and experience room, owes a lot to Gavin and Sarah's creativity and hard work. It comes as no surprise that their family Christmas party also has a wow factor.
"Yes, our slogan is 'make it memorable'!" Sarah laughs. "I like to do something a bit different." Last year's Christmas Eve's get-together is a case in point.
"Oh that was great fun," she says. "Our friend brought along her little donkey, dressed as an elf, as a special guest on Christmas Eve.
"It was wonderful to see the children's faces when the door opened and Lucy the donkey walked into the drawing room, looking for her carrot canapes. Everyone is still talking about it."
With 25 log-burning fireplaces at Larchfield, Santa is spoiled for choice.
"We don't use the ones in the bedrooms but yes, Santa still has a lot of options," Sarah says. "Luckily he always seems to find his way. We still use the original log lift which runs over three floors and carries 500kg of wood at a time."
King Henry VIII is reputedly the first monarch to sample turkey and it's been on the menu ever since. Nowadays, the Mackies get their bird from a local farmer. Gavin and his dad are a dab hand at sauces but their pudding comes with a twist of tradition.
"My mother makes each of us a Christmas pudding," Sarah adds. "When mum was a girl, my grandmother got everyone to 'stir' the pudding and make a wish. Nowadays, with distance being an obstacle, mum phones and we each make a wish while she stirs for us. According to myth, the wish is meant to come true in the New Year."
See more about Larchfied at www.larchfieldestate.co.uk
Overlooking the shores of Strangford Lough in Co Down, Mount Stewart is one of the National Trust's most popular destinations. It's also the childhood home of Lady Rose Lauritzen, daughter of the late Lady Mairi Bury and granddaughter of Edith, Vane-Tempest-Stewart, Marchioness of Londonderry.
Today, Lady Rose and her husband, author and art historian Peter Lauritzen, divide their time between Mount Stewart and their home in Venice. Taking time from a busy schedule, she shares her memories of Christmas past.
"I shared a bedroom with my older sister Elizabeth and every year we'd write our letters to Father Christmas and post them via the bedroom chimney," she recalls.
"I remember how I always asked for the same thing - a fancy dress Red Indian Squaw costume - but I never got one. I still don't know why!
"On Christmas Eve, we hung our stockings on the fender by the fireplace. While we were asleep, one of our adult cousins dressed up as Father Christmas, came in and filled them with wonderful little presents. He also left us a large basket of gifts from our grandmother (Lady Edith). On Christmas morning, everything was opened with great excitement."
Christmas Day began with a communion service - although Rose and her family didn't have far to go.
"Early communion was held in the beautiful chapel in the house and was taken by the family chaplain who at the time was Rector of Greyabbey," Lady Rose says. "We had quite a large number of staff in those days. Those who worked in the main house lived in, while the rest had houses around the demesne.
"At Christmas time, staff were invited to join us in the chapel. My parents always had house guests and they also attended the service. After worship it was time for breakfast, which was quite a big gathering, usually around 25 of us in all. For us girls, it was an exciting time as this was when the family and guests exchanged gifts."
As employers, the Londonderrys appear to have had quite a good relationship with their staff.
"We thought of them as friends and they were very good to us. Our nanny/governess was a trained botanist and taught me to read when I was just three years old. By the age of 10 the 'nursery' had become my private sitting room and I have vivid memories of the greenhouse gardener coming to play endless games of ping pong with me.
"At Christmas time, it was our family tradition to visit everyone on the estate. After breakfast, my grandmother, mother, my sister Elizabeth and I walked around the demesne, calling at the homes of the workers to wish them a happy Christmas and give them their gifts. At noon, the staff went to have their Christmas dinner in the servants' hall while we waited until 1.30pm to have a cold lunch."
Nowadays, Christmas lunch is usually followed by a snooze in front of the telly. Previous generations were more energetic, however.
"After lunch, we all had to go out for a good long walk," Lady Rose remembers.
"We came back at around 5pm when we'd have Christmas cake and scones. Then we had to take a rest so we could be ready for the big event, the party! It was very glamorous. Elizabeth and I were dressed up in old bridesmaid's dresses, the ladies wore long ballgowns and jewels while men wore tails.
"After the war there were some changes to the dress code - for example, a black tie instead of a white one. Dinner was held in the big dining room and it was the only night, apart from New Year's Eve, that the children were allowed downstairs for dinner. We even got to sit at the big table instead of the usual children's one!"
The Mount Stewart Christmas menu sounds delicious - and the surrounds must have been magical.
"For starters we had pate de foie followed by turkey with all the trimmings," Lady Rose says. "Dessert was a flaming Christmas pudding with brandy butter. It was such an elegant scene. The table was decorated with beautiful flowers and candelabra, there were endless dishes of chocolates, crystallised fruit, nuts and tangerines. There was a large variety of drinks like coffee, port and liqueurs (although not for us children!)
"And I remember how the piper walked around the table, dressed in Stewart tartan and playing my grandmother's favourite Celtic tunes."
In his memoirs, former footman Arthur Inch identifies the Christmas piper as William Mackenzie who, prior to working for Lady Londonderry, was champion piper for Sutherland.
Lady Rose describes how festivities continued after dinner.
"Our family friend from the Outer Hebrides, Duncan Morison, played the piano in the drawing room - he wore his dress kilt, velvet and lace," she explains. "We all danced waltzes, polkas and Scottish reels before going to bed exhausted. The next day, Boxing Day, there was always a lawn meet of the hounds and we went hunting to blow the cobwebs away."
According to Mr Inch, once the party got under way, staff were expected to discreetly withdraw. They returned around 3am when, festivities over, they had to clean up. Those due to start work at 5am didn't bother going to bed.
Today, Lady Rose celebrates Christmas with her family in Venice. She continues to employ a small staff at Mount Stewart - none of whom will be working at Christmas!
See more about Mount Stewart at www.nationaltrust.org.uk/mount-stewart