There’s a sort of lull to this weekend. The shopping is done, well almost, the wrapping is, if not done, at least making good progress, and we aren’t quite into the final culinary onslaught in which an obscene amount of butter and chocolate is turned into delicious nibbly things for us to feast on.
And so we’ve had space for a little family time; for quiet moments, for paper chains and snowflake making, and for a little expedition to see one of our most favourite places dressed for Christmas.
Upton House at Christmas is truly beautiful; every door has a wreath, and each of the seven real Christmas trees in the house has been dipped from head to toe in a dusting of baubles and twinkle.
As you walked through the front door, the hall tree scraped the ceiling, festooned with frosted baubles and miles of glittery gold thread. In the picture room, a 20 foot tree soared to the sky, all big fat red plush baubles and golden icicle swirls sparkling in the lights. There were trees in the library decorated with tiny glass toadstools, and in the snug, more red and white and stars. It was wonderful. I’m a little envious of all the volunteers who got to decorate in such a stunning setting, although perhaps not so much the lucky person who had to scale the scaffolding to put the star at the top of the 20-footer.
It could not but make your heart sing.
But whereas beautiful trees and streamers will do it for H and me, and twinkle lights are everything to Elma, there was something else, some little secret that Upton was keeping; a secret we told Kitty when we arrived, a secret that made a certain someone rather excited.
In fact, I would go so far as to say very excited:
Shh! Listen close! If you call really loudly from the Picture Room, Father Christmas will hear you, and what’s more, he’ll come to see you!
A slightly nervous Kitty and a trio of much braver primary school aged little boys sat by the roaring fire and called in their very best and biggest voices. It wasn’t quite loud enough so the Mummies and Daddies had to join in too: “Father Christmas!!”
It might have been a bauble blowing in the breeze or perhaps? was that? did you catch that shiver of jingle bells in the distance?
And around the corner came the man himself, with a long white beard flowing over a crimson suit and his sack over one shoulder, to settle himself into a cozy armchair in front of the children.
Kitty, overcome with shyness buried her head into H’s shoulder, but as the boys chatted away she warmed up and wriggled forward, perching on H’s knees, straining towards her “Santa Christmas”.
He was a lovely Father Christmas; he asked the children what they wanted for Christmas, asked their opinion on a name for his new reindeer (“Lucy” according to the smallest little boy), and suggested that we could all scrap Christmas dinner for Brussels sprouts and custard. When the children asked he told them how reindeer fly (by magic), where he lives (north, even further north than Yorkshire), and when Kitty plucked up the courage to ask him how old he was he explained that he had been counting on the abacus but he ran out of beads rather a long time ago, and now he’s not sure.
She was so excited to be called forward first for a little present, that when Father Christmas asked if anyone wanted a photo, she was more than happy to sit on his knee and tell him that what she’d really like for Christmas is a Minnie Mouse Calendar.
I never visited Father Christmas as a child, and like all things that aren’t in your Christmas lexicon, they tend to be overlooked when you come to recreate that Christmas yourself. We’ve thought about it occasionally, but frankly I’m put off a bit by some of the grottos I’ve seen that seem to be all queues, cheesy piped music and fake snow, and we felt that a one on one situation would be more than Kit could cope with. But this was different; it was the Father Christmas of the poems and the old stories, curled up by the fireside in a beautiful house that has such a homely feel, with what felt like all the time in the world for my tiny daughter and her companions.
It felt like how visiting Father Christmas should be.
And if that wasn’t enough, the staff had laid on a whole host of Christmassy crafts in the kitchen; doily angels, pictures to colour, and H and Kitty’s favourite; paper angels and trees.
All afternoon we’d heard strains of a jazz saxophonist floating through the house, and that’s where we finished our afternoon; in the Long Gallery where golden and cream crepe paper streamers fanned out across the ceiling from the rose of each chandelier, and a veritable plantation of green and gold reached up to meet them. The sun had long gone, and the grey afternoon was drawing to dusk when we arrived so that everything glimmered in the gentle glow of a gazillion fairy lights. We must have been some of the last people in the house, and we were certainly the only people in the gallery apart from Charlie the saxophonist, and the room guide.
And as the music rippled over us, my biggest little girl started to sway and dance from foot to foot. So we put down the bag, took Elma out of the sling and danced. Kitty and I did lengths of the gallery of “side together side together” and “twirly twirly”, H waltzed Elma around the room and then we swapped as I led Elma in an abominable approximation of a rumba, and Kitty and H invented an entirely new dance altogether. And while they spun and twirled to “All I want for Christmas is my Two Front Teeth”, I sat in the middle of the floor while Elma stood, keeping a firm grasp on my fingers with each little hand, bouncing up and down to the music, and giggling in a bubbling over of joy.
I don’t have any pictures of that wonderful half hour, save for those in my memory, and that’s OK. The National Trust understandably has rules about photography, but more than that, I didn’t want to miss a second of the magic that pervaded the whole afternoon, of the feeling of closeness, of family togetherness after weeks of long hours and working days, and of utter unselfconsciousness of my atrocious dancing in the joy of our little girls.
And so as always I write, to remember a moment that is more than worthy of treasuring, and a very merry afternoon.