The Heatley Cliff A Very Merry Downton Christmas! Amy Foster

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Admittedly, I have gone rather off topic in the last few posts. But today we return to our beloved Heatley Cliff, which is not as grand as Downton Abbey but is as thoroughly steeped in tradition. Sher and I are clearly devoted Anglophiles and perhaps you are too after watching the hit PBS show. Listed below are a few ways that you can bring Downton to your very own holiday celebrations.

  • First things first. One may be filthy, stinking rich and even a member of the aristocracy, but one never shows it off. This is why Kate Middleton Windsor does not walk around wearing a tiara. Because of this low key attitude, much of the Christmas celebration will include homemade gifts and/or decorations like jams, jellies, pies or knitted things. The ‘Make Do And Mend’ attitude is no doubt a wartime throwback, but it is nice to offer up something you’ve created, even if it’s as simple as a batch of cookies.
  • Fruit cakes are a must and should be prepared weeks in advanced, because they have to be absolutely steeped in alcohol. Fruit cakes have a notoriously bad rep, but if baked correctly, it’s pretty much like eating a couple of shots. A traditional recipe can be found here.
  • In England, the Christmas season officially begins with the Advent. I’m sure many of you are already familiar with the Advent calendar. These calendars are easy to find in drugstores and candy shops. But, if you want to go Downton style, you should think about investing in a permanent one made of wood. These can come in many shapes (I like the ones that look like little houses) and  have 24 doors on the front, which you open up each day to reveal a tiny prize inside. Here’s a link to buy one for next year.
  • Christmas lights are always nice but a more traditional decor centers around nature. Fir garlands and wreaths, mistletoe, holy and ivy will Manor-fy your home instantly. It should make it smell like Christmas, too!
  • This week on the podcast, we are trying to recreate our lives before computers. Email is great. I get and send dozens of emails a day. It may be a small pleasure, but it is a pleasure, however, when you get something in the mail. If you’re going to go Downton style, you need to send out actual Christmas cards. You can purchase them online but you have to send them out with a stamp. When you get Christmas cards, string them up and hang them like a garland; it looks really sweet.
  • At Downton, a tree would be procured by a gamekeeper on the grounds. At the Heatley Cliff our gamekeeper is Taylor Kitsch (Tim Riggins!), so you can imagine how much fun that would be to watch. In the past, you may have gone to a lot to buy your tree. This year, look online and see if there isn’t a Christmas tree farm relatively close by.  This will provide imminently more satisfaction and will really get you in the holiday spirit. You may well have treasured ornaments to decorate your tree with and by all means do, but traditional English ornaments are often just as simple as ribbon bow ties or pieces of dried apple or orange strung up with a thinner ribbon. Think about including these simple decorations on your tree.
  • In order to do the Downton style justice, one must go a – wassailing.  A Wassail is actually a cup of booze, a strong one at that, to keep the winter chill away. The intent behind the wassail is actually a toast to good health and cheer, done at Downton naturally by Lord Grantham. The word is a translation from Ye Olde English meaning ‘be well’. To go a- wassailing, you bring a pot of your wassail with you (if homemade) – or a bottle, if purchased. Then, you go out carolling and offer up a cup of wassail to your neighbours. If the idea of going door to door singing terrifies you (as it does me), then singing carols at home with friends and family and a bunch of booze will do quite nicely.
  • Have you ever heard of the panto? Pantos are a big time Christmas event in England, usually starring soap actors and weird B or C list American celebrities like David Hasslehof and Donnie Osmond. But, traditionally a pantomime is performed by the kids in the family or neighbourhood. It’s a fun, SILENT little skit where they act out a Christmas themed play that last only three or four minutes. I can see how the household pantomime would have worked brilliantly before TV, but if you’ve got creative youngsters, it may well be fun for them to do.
  • There is no Santa Claus in England. Repeat. There is no Santa Claus. Instead, they have Father Christmas, who is basically, the same guy but looks a little bit more like Dumbledore. Children traditionally are allowed to open one gift on Christmas Eve. Then, the stockings are hung in anticipation for his arrival. In Downton times, the children would be sent to their father’s sock drawer to pick out an actual sock. Considering the state of my own husband’s socks, I’m going to give this one a pass and go with the bigger, store bought ones.
  • On Christmas morning, the first order of business is always tea. Then the eldest child of the house is assigned to be Father Christmas’s helper – a serious responsibility, as he or she has the job of handing out the gifts. This in theory should ensure that instead of a free for all, the opening of presents runs as efficiently as a German production line.
  • Christmas dinner may or may not have turkey. At the Heatley Cliff we prefer a lovely roast. Yorkshire Pudding is however, a staple. Don’t let the name fool you. It is not a pudding or even a dessert. It is a gorgeous roll baked in the oven with an obscene amount of butter. The other ABSOLUTE MUST have at dinner are Christmas crackers, again a misleading name. A cracker is a cardboard tube wrapped in colorful, streamer-like paper. The person beside you pulls one end and you pull the other. There is an audible snap and once broken a little toy falls out along with a silly joke and a tissue paper crown which should be worn at the table. I’m not sure what the crown is about, perhaps a tribute to The Three KingsWisemen or even Jesus himself. Either way, everyone at the table looks very festive. You can purchase crackers online here.
  • Wait, wait, we aren’t done yet. The day after Christmas in England (and Canada too, Commonwealth that it is) is also a holiday called Boxing Day. At Downton Abbey, the family would have “boxed” up their left over food and other items they had put aside for charity and handed it out to the families living on the estate. Today, Boxing Day has evolved to a day reserved for visiting family and friends. At least, it should be. Unfortunately more and more, people have taken it to mean that they return the “boxes” of gifts that didn’t fit or they didn’t particularly like back to the stores. It’s a huge day of sales; think Black Friday. Absurd. Why go back to the shops when you’ve just spent a month traipsing all over them to find those presents in the first place? Stay home and relax, go over to a family member’s house or do something for charity. The only consuming you should do is of the Wassail variety. Can you imagine Lady Grantham at Best Buy the day after Christmas? I think not.

From all of us here at the Heatley Cliff, we wish you the happiest of Holidays.

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  1. Love this, especially the Dumbledore description of Father Christmas. Being the Anglophile that you are, you might enjoy my friend Chef Larry Edwards page “the foods of Downton Abbey” in which he shares traditional Edwardian style kitchen magic, and more. Its a favorite of mine.