Behind the Scenes of Cragside House as they Prepare for a Victorian Christmas
With Christmas fast approaching, Living North takes a look behind the scenes at the preparations for the festive season at historic Cragside House, and discovers more about how the Victorians actually celebrated Christmas
‘It all begins with the planning,’ explains Katherine Foggon, Senior House and Collections Officer at Cragside. ‘No sooner have the decorations been carefully packed away, than we’re planning the next year and thinking about ways that we can make the experience even more magical for visitors.’
Cragside is a jewel in the crown of the National Trust. On a visit, it’s easy to be blown away by the grounds. There is a Formal Garden, Pinetum – home to some of the tallest trees of their kind in the country – and an enormous Rock Garden surrounding the House, with rhododendron-lined paths. Not to mention the towering trees, glistening lakes and the babbling burn running through the valley. While the wider grounds look very natural, they are in fact entirely artificial. When the Armstrongs moved to Cragside is 1863, they began the long task of transforming a rugged, heathery moorland into an engineered paradise designed to harness the power of water.
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Cragside House is Britain’s original smart home. William Armstrong had a passion for efficiency and modern living. He sculpted the grounds, creating manmade lakes and laying a network of pipes and cables to illuminate Cragside House with hydroelectricity. Not only that; the house was powered by hydraulics too. A passenger lift, rotating spit in the kitchen and fire hydrant system were all operated using the power of water. His wife, Margaret, was a keen follower of fashion and expert in natural sciences and botany. Flourishes of nature can be spotted all across the home, including intricately carved panelling in the dining room featuring flora and fauna, sunflowers on the stained-glass windows and leafy William Morris & Co. wallpaper on the walls.
‘Cragside was built with beauty and function in mind. The Armstrongs lived in an age of innovation, and the celebration of Christmas was no exception,’ says Katherine. ‘Decking the halls, trimming the trees, giving wrapped presents to loved ones and singing carols were all made fashionable by the Victorians and so many of their traditions are still around today.’
Cragside House is remarkably cosy. The ground-floor family rooms are smaller, with comfortable furniture, and fireplaces in each room helped to keep the harsh Northumbrian winters at bay. ‘The rooms naturally feel wintery and festive. There are sumptuous red lamp shades in the library and decorative stained glass representing each the season. The halls are lined with Majorca-inspired tiles in rich oranges and blues.’ There are so many original features and warming tones around the house, it lends is self perfectly to host a Victorian Christmas… with a twist!
This year, the team are taking inspiration from the poem ‘A Visit from St. Nicolas’ attributed to Clement Clark Moor, better known as ‘Twas the Night Before Christmas’.
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‘Decking the halls, trimming the trees, giving wrapped presents to loved ones and singing carols were all made fashionable by the Victorians and so many of their traditions are still around today’
‘We’ve loved thinking of imaginative ways to bring this poem to life within the ground floor rooms of the house,’ says Katherine. ‘There are so many iconic lines to get creative with. We’ve come up with a magical route through the house. It’s going to feel immersive, like you’ve stepped inside the words of the poem.
‘We don’t want to share too many surprises, but we really can’t wait to share how we interpreted the lines “Not a creature was stirring, not even a mouse” and “The children were nestled all snug in their beds; while visions of sugar-plums danced in their heads”.’
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Of course, it wouldn’t be Christmas without a Christmas tree. Queen Victoria’s husband, Prince Albert, is credited with making the German tradition of bringing evergreen trees inside at Christmas popular in Britain. As a fashion-conscious couple, William and Margaret Armstrong followed the trends set by the Royal couple and decorated their home in the same way.
The team at Cragside have been busy making the decorations for a grand 12-foot Christmas tree in the Dining Room window alcove, including dried fruit decorations, paper chains, paper fans and ribbon acorns. ‘This is undoubtedly where the Armstrongs would have placed the tree,’ say Katherine. ‘Guests would have been greeted with a view of the tree on arrival as they drove through the archway of the House.’
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If you were visiting Cragside at Christmas, chances are you would have dined by the tree in the stunning Dining Room. A fire would be roaring in the fireplace while the scent of festive food being prepared filled the air from the nearby kitchens.
With Armstrong’s passion for innovation and technologies, he didn’t just have any old table for seating guests. In the Dining Room is a round Capstan table which could be extended to seat up to 12 guests. A specially designed rotating mechanism splits the table into an asterisk shape and makes the overall circumference of the table larger. At its smaller size the table looks like it’s been put together in pie-segments, but with a quick twist of the edges, it expands and additional wooden segments are added into the gaps.
The Victorian tradition of decorating homes with greenery was known as ‘Christmassing’. Bringing in winter foliage from outside at this time of year is a centuries old tradition, but the Victorians embellished the custom. They added symbolism to the different plants that they chose to use. They hung swags and wreaths of holly and ivy all around their houses, representing friendship, loyalty, and eternity. Dried flowers known as immortelles were also used, and symbolised love. And of course, there was the mistletoe crown – you had to catch a kiss underneath before the berries were gone.
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As you stroll around the house, you’ll spot spectacular displays of greenery in all the rooms. Christmas at Cragside must be magical, but the team make sure that it is sustainable too. The garden team pick flowers and seed heads throughout the year, using traditional methods to preserve and dry them for Christmas.
Towards the end of November, the team collect forest foliage to make wreaths to hang across the property. Holly trimmings are kept, and the team gather broken branches and pinecones from the base of the trees on the estate to create their festive displays.
Christmas at Cragside would not be possible without the help from a dedicated team of volunteers; the Christmas Creators. They spend hours sewing, gluing and cutting decorations inspired by the Victorians. They festively wrap boxes, stick paper chains together and make Christmas crackers. This year, the volunteers have been set a few new challenges including making felt mice, giant Father Christmas boots and reindeer and sleigh papercuts. We can’t wait to see how everything comes together!
‘Twas the night before Christmas at Cragside House
Saturday 3rd and Sunday 4th, Saturday 10th and Sunday 11th December.
Saturday 17th December to Monday 2nd January (except Christmas Eve and Christmas Day)
Saturday 3rd December to Monday 2nd January
Father Christmas’ reindeer did one loop-de-loop too many when flying over Cragside and six presents fell out of his sleigh. The elves need some help to find them. Look high, look low, they could be anywhere!
Festive Photo Station
Saturday 3rd December to Monday 2 January
Choose your festive props, jump behind the giant picture frame and strike a pose to create a photo with family and friends. Christmas jumpers highly recommended.
Wish upon a star…
Saturday 3rd December to Monday 2nd January
Help to decorate the Wish Tree in the Stables this December. Write your hopes and dreams for 2023 on one of the tags and share it with others by adding it to the branches of the tree.
Entry this winter is £10 adults, £5 children, under 5s and members are free. Christmas at Cragside starts on Saturday 3rd December and more information can be found