'A few springs of holly’: Vita and Harold’s Christmas at Sissinghurst Castle Garden
Vita Sackville-West and Harold Nicolson had a different approach when it came to Christmas, one that mainly featured a 'not so festive' spirit.
From 1930 Sissinghurst Castle Garden was the home of Vita Sackville-West, Harold Nicolson and their sons Benedict and Nigel. For this family, Christmas was not a time for grand celebrations with feasting and elaborate decorations. It was a peaceful opportunity for uninterrupted writing, reading by the fire and time spent as a family. In January 1953 Vita wrote affectionately to Harold about the ‘ease we all found together over Christmas’ and that her ‘only sorrow, and it is a deep one’ was ‘Nigel’s appalling hair cut’.
These were taken from Vita and Harold's letters and diaries, which shine some light on their thoughts about the festive holidays.
" Harold and I will be alone (which we like) and I suppose someone will stick up a few sprigs of holly in the dining room; otherwise it will be just like any other day. "
" There is one thing we lack as a family, and that is social gaiety . . . The result is that we do not enjoy cocktail parties and make such an effort not to show our displeasure that we become taut, strained, absurd and unreal. Now the one thing we are not is unreal. So I hate Christmas, and I wish David’s royal city had never been celebrated in vermouth and gin."
Vita’s Christmas Lists
There was one Christmas tradition that Vita Sackville-West embraced- gift giving. She kept notebooks running from 1930 to 1961 with careful lists of gifts to buy and cards to be sent which are now in the National Trust’s collection. Vita’s Christmas lists offer a glimpse of the people who looked after the everyday running of the house and garden at Sissinghurst such as Mrs Staples (the cook), Jack Vass (the gardener) or Copper (the chauffer and handyman).
Harold Nicolson did not keep such detailed lists of gifts given but in his diary entry for 25th December 1951 he recounts an unsuccessful gift exchange:
‘We give each other Christmas presents. I give Viti [Vita] some bath towels (which I like but she doesn’t), some sherry glasses (which she doesn’t like either), a flag (for the tower) (which she would have had to get in any case) and a new edition of ‘Larousse’ (which she hates). Not a successful gift ceremony.’
As Christmas was usually a quiet and low-key event for Vita and Harold there are few sources of information about how they spent the 25th December. However Sissinghurst is lucky that Vita’s gift lists survived as they show both her generosity and sense of duty to family and friends.
Festivities at Sissinghurst
‘Thank goodness Christmas is over. We managed to be fairly quiet, but our neighbours will give cocktail parties, which we both loathe but are more or less obliged to attend once a year.’
Vita Sackville-West writing to her friend Andrew Leiber, 1953
Christmas food and drink were not met with much enthusiasm by Vita and Harold at Sissinghurst. In a radio broadcast on the 5th December 1930 Harold described turkey as ‘a somewhat stringy bird’ and said that ‘plum pudding… tastes much the same as it tasted in 1929 and as it will taste again in 1931’.
Despite their dislike of festivities, Christmas was often a rare moment of togetherness. Harold often worked away in London during the week and their sons Benedict and Nigel went to boarding school before beginning their own lives and careers. Harold described Christmas in 1946 as ‘So quiet, so busy, so useful’ and hoped that his sons, aged 29 and 32, appreciated returning to a ‘comfortable home, admiring parents, and an opportunity to work without interruption.’
Winter in the Garden
Vita and Harold admitted that Sissinghurst was not a home well designed for winter and they braved the cold, dark and rain each time they crossed the garden. They met the winter months with cheerful resolve and looked for beauty amongst the bleakness. Vita wrote about blue, yellow and green parakeets in her aviary set against a fresh snowfall – ‘No painter but Van Gogh could have splashed them onto canvas’.
The calm quiet of winter is a perfect time to see the structural framework of the garden. Harold Nicolson’s design for the garden is both clever and thoughtful. Working within the awkward angles of Sissinghurst’s ruined Elizabethan manor house Harold achieved intimate garden rooms linked by grand vistas. Today Sissinghurst’s gardeners still use Harold’s method of stakes, string and a tape measure to keep the hedges on course.