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Born from adversity – an inspirational Christmas tradition

Around the stately homes of England and Wales, Scotland and Ireland, Christmas fairs, markets and carol services proliferate with mulled wine, mince pies, storytelling and dressing up de rigeur.

One of the early adopters of this phenomenon was Chatsworth, which under the guidance of the late Deborah Devonshire became one of the forerunners of a grand house being operated as a business.

Debo, as she was universally known, was an unlikely entrepreneur. The last of the Mitford girls, she came from a background that was far removed from commercial reality. Passionately fond of the countryside and country pursuits, she married a second son in 1941 little knowing that in 1950 she would become Duchess and be chatelaine of one of England’s great houses.

It was a title that certainly didn’t come with wealth attached as Debo and her husband, then the 11th Duke of Devonshire, found themselves faced with crippling 80% death duties.

Transforming Chatsworth

Undaunted, Debo set about transforming Chatsworth into a self-sustaining business, making it, as The Telegraph described it in her obituary, ‘a glorious public spectacle and a consummately stylish private home’.

Innovations included shops in the Orangery and the Carriage House, a restaurant in the stables and a farmyard so that visitors could see where our food comes from. Along the way, she displayed a literary talent in books about herself, her husband, her sisters and her poultry. She even published a cook book, explaining in the introduction that she hadn’t cooked since the war.

A Chatsworth tradition was born

It comes as no surprise, therefore, that the first Chatsworth Christmas exhibition was born out of economic adversity. During the devastating foot and mouth outbreak of 2001,Chatsworth and all the businesses around it were forced to close, but the Duke and Duchess, displaying a typical mix of blitz spirit and financial acuity, decided to launch the first Christmas event. This was significant as the house was kept open during November and December for the first time.

With the enthusiastic cooperation of the staff, the house was bedecked with trees, garlands and plenty of tinsel and a new Chatsworth tradition was born. From this somewhat improvised family affair, a highly professional themed event has grown, for which planning starts in earnest in February and behind the scenes work starts in July.

The first priority in deciding the theme is that it must be about Christmas and feature recognisable characters that appeal to all generations. Orchestrated by the Christmas team – The Duchess of Devonshire, Head Housekeeper, Janet Bitton, and Susie Stokoe who heads up the textiles team, this is very much a communal effort. Susie is the main design force, with Janet producing sets, scenery and props. The textile team make the costumes, gardeners gather and arrange floral displays, carpenters, joiners and electricians are in charge of set making and overseeing lighting and special effects. Not much defeats the in-house team, but in 2015 for Christmas with Mr Toad they did call upon local Derby specialists to create some of the animatronic props… including the champagne fountain!

The evolution of the Chatsworth Christmas exhibition

Tracking the evolution of the Chatsworth Christmas exhibition, it is fascinating to see how it has grown both in scale and in imagination, from the early versions looking at Christmas from Other Lands and A Victorian Christmas through to The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe up to the magical world of Toad. With this ambition and complexity, there inevitably come logistical issues. Visitor figures have soared in the past few years, leading to extended opening hours and, most recently, timed ticketing to help spread the volume of visitors and create a better experience.

Looking at the Historic Houses Association website among others, it is clear how this initiative has been taken up and personalised by houses of every size and description, to the benefit of them all. Visitors are the lifeblood of these wonderful houses and a key to success is to attract a family audience – and the Christmas exhibition is proving to be a key player in preserving their future.

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