Decking the halls at Polesden Lacey
Polesden Lacey’s house and collections manager Jonathan Marsh explains how staff, volunteers and visitors help bring an Edwardian country house Christmas to life.
When do the Christmas preparations begin at Polesden Lacey?
The team here start thinking about Christmas in April. We have a ‘big ideas’ meeting, where everyone gets excited and no idea is too far-fetched, and once we’ve got a plan we research the stories we’ll use to bring Christmas to life.
Physical preparations only really start the second week in November when it’s all hands on deck. Our NADFAS costume volunteers also work year round to produce the costumes that are worn at Christmas.
What’s involved in preparing the house for Christmas?
We decorate all but two of the downstairs rooms (the upstairs rooms are packed away for the winter) and we often have to move a lot of the delicate furniture and collections for the Christmas displays.
We also have to protect items ready for the greenery to come in. The gardeners collect holly, ivy and box, which are put into garlands and fabulous flower arrangements. And, of course, we bring in an abundance of festive flowers like poinsettia and winter roses, which are arrangement by our talented volunteer flower arrangers.
We also have to hang our red and gold glittery Christmas panels in the windows at the front of the house. This takes time and patience but the visual effect is so striking, even at a distance.
Finally, we have to dress the Christmas trees. There’s usually about ten of them dotted about the house, including the giant one in the hall.
What’s the trickiest job during the run up to Christmas?
Decorating the main 16ft tree in Polesden Lacey’s central hall is always a big moment. Getting it into the hall involves the help of all of the rangers as well as the garden and house teams.
We string up the lights from tall ladders and from the balcony above and place empire flags on the top of the tree. When that tree is in and dressed I really know that it’s Christmas.
Does the Christmas theme change each year?
We try to explore Christmas from a different perspective every year. In the past we’ve used themes like ‘advent’ and ‘three kings’. The advent theme, for example, explored 24 different events and memories that occurred during the festive season in the run up to Christmas, such as memories from the servants’ ball or facts about the housekeeping preparations that had to be made to cater for Christmas guests.
But it’s safe to say that Christmas at Polesden Lacey is a very traditional affair every year. I think it’s those timeless festive traditions, like a beautifully dress twinkling tree or our favourite well-worn carols, that evoke the warmth and cheer of Christmas every time we experience them.
How do you take visitors back in time to Christmases past?
We try to make our Christmas as historically accurate as we can using the memories of people who lived and worked here like Florence Dicker, the daughter of a housemaid who remembered Christmas as ‘always very busy but also enjoyable’ and the gardeners bringing in ‘several Christmas trees that were placed in different rooms of the house and were beautifully decorated’.
Giving a sense of going back in time is also often about the details, the gifts addressed to the servants or the music played on the piano. We’ve previously played George V’s first Christmas speech on the wireless which was hugely evocative.
What other touches make a Christmas visit to Polesden Lacey special?
Christmas is a complete sensory experience, so we’ll often have tasters of festive food or mulled wine on offer. We’ve also incorporated festive aromas, like cinnamon and nutmeg, which evoke very specific and cherished memories of Christmas. Music is also really important and we involve local choirs and musicians as well as our own skilled piano volunteers.
In the central hall we sometimes recreate the annual servants’ ball, when a piano and fiddle were played, so sound is very important. Having real foliage also helps awaken the senses.
What’s your favourite Christmas-themed room?
It’s really difficult to choose a favourite room at Christmas, they all look beautiful. I think the Saloon with the lights glittering off the gilding and the piano playing is one of my favourites but I also love the Tea Room which is a very intimate space.
The house really comes alive at Christmas, it has a real warmth. All our lovely volunteers who help out all year round love Christmas and it makes for a joyous atmosphere.
How do visitors react to the Christmas experience at Polesden Lacey?
Visitors have commented that it’s not Christmas for them until they‘ve come to see Polesden Lacey decorated for the festive season. I think it is wonderful to have become part of people’s Christmas traditions.
As well as seeing the house dressed for Christmas our younger visitors also enjoy encountering our wandering Father Christmas and having a horse and carriage ride. The horses like to pretend they're reindeer but we don't say anything about it.
What would visitors be surprised to know about the Christmas preparations?
They might be surprised by the logistics involved in our Christmas preparations and how carefully we weigh up what we do in terms of the presentation of the house but also to ensure we minimise the impact on our precious collections. Any money that we make at Christmas is ploughed back into our conservation work.