Nicola here. At this time of year when the evenings are long and dark and the days are short there is nothing that I enjoy more than seeing a light show. If there is snow (or at least a hard frost!) and stars sparkling overhead that’s an added bonus. Perhaps its’ a throwback to the distant ancestors who lit up this time of year with a number of fire festivals: Samhain, Halloween, All Souls and Guy Fawkes Night, all with bonfires and lanterns. The precursor of Christmas lights were the candles that German families would attach to the branches of trees with wax and pins as far back as the 17th century (fire hazard alert!) A hundred years later they had developed candle holders and glass balls for the candles and the tradition of the Christmas tree lights spread across Europe. The advent of electricity, of course, meant that we could all go wild with our lights if we wanted, both inside and outside!
It was a huge treat for me to go the Christmas Lights at Cotehele Manor gardens in Cornwall this year. Cotehele is a Tudor house with glorious gardens and a fascinating history. The Cotehele Christmas Garland is a tradition dating back to last century. Normally it adorns the Great Hall of the Manor House. The flowers for the garland are grown in the gardens from seeds sown in early spring. The plants include purple and blue statice and yellow helychrysum.
The flowers are picked in the summer, each individual stem is stripped of leaves and then they are hung up in the potting shed to dry. Construction of the garland begins in November using a sixty foot long rope which is first wrapped in evergreen foliage. Between 15 and 30 thousand flowers are then placed among the greenery and the huge garland is hung in swags across the Great Hall. It sounds an amazing creation and I wish I could have seen it but this year, of course, things are different. The house was closed and so the National Trust had had the brilliant idea to bring the decorations outside.
When we arrived, we had a hot chocolate in the café whilst we waited for dusk to fall in order to see the lights at their best. It was a delicious way to start the tour! The route into the gardens leads first through the main gateway into what is called the Hall Court. Here the arched roof was filled with the dry flowers that had been collected in the summer to make the garland. It was incredibly effective and as they were all yellow and white, very bright and festive.
Many of the other archways were decorated with Christmas foliage as well and the chapel was
illuminated to look particularly bright and lovely. Although we couldn’t go inside the house, the door of the Great Hall was ajar and we could peek inside (like peasants of old!) to see the Christmas tree and the lights. The route then took us through into the gardens and orchards where all the trees and ponds were lit with Christmas lights and decorated with ornaments. My favourite part was the terrace where they had created a huge ceramic Christmas bauble representing all the flowers that normally go into the garland.
Cotehele is a particularly interesting house because by the Georgian period the Edgcumbe family, who owned it, had moved out to a bigger house down the river Tamar and had deliberately turned it into an antiquarian home. All the family’s old armour and tapestries and outdated furniture was sent there to create a house that was consciously Tudor. They would then take visitors on boat trips up the river to visit the “old house”! King George III and Queen Charlotte visited in 1789 and wrote in her diary: “It (the house) consists of a hall full of Old armour and swords and Old Carved Chairs… the seats are made of priests vestments…. We eat off the family pewter and use silver knives, forks and spoons that have been in the family for time immemorial…”
There is also a wonderful description of Christmas in the Great Hall in the Victorian era: “Ample justice was done to the roast beef and plum pudding (eaten together as was the custom) and the Rector having said grace and the singers having taken their places at the bottom of the hall, the hot punch was ladled out… The tenants all gradually retired and ridden off by moonlight down the steep hill – some of them with a jovial recklessness to the risk of their necks…” It was to be hoped that there were no Christmas accidents that year!
Celebrating with garlands and lights is a lovely way to bring brightness into these long, sometimes dark days, and for us, seeing the beautiful house and gardens decorated this way really lifted the spirits. As we all approach the festive season, do you celebrate with lights, either inside or outside the house, or at one of the popular outdoor light events? And will you be looking up to the skies on this Winter Solstice night to see the bright light of the Jupiter and Saturn conjunction?