The tall, iron studded walnut front door of the Castle opens with ease and, at this time of year, every visitor is grateful to be out of the rain and the December weather. The front hall creates the welcome story, the slim marble cladding of pillars supporting the delicate Gothic arched ceiling, the architecture providing the frame within which you pause, before being drawn irresistibly towards the heart of the Castle: the huge glass doors that mark the entrance to the Saloon. At the far side, the Christmas tree stretches up towards the ceiling, sparking with gold and red baubles, little figures of Father Christmas, tiny sledges, stars and cascading white Christmas lights.
It is a welcoming sight to make you smile and look forward in anticipation to the traditions, rituals and family time which, at their best, offer peace and relaxation at this time of year.
Christmas trees are, in a way, a Royal tradition, introduced into England by the Hanoverians in the 18th century. Queen Anne (you may have seen the film ‘The Favourite’) had no children so her second cousin once removed became King George II of England, bringing Christmas traditions and above all that of the Christmas tree with them. It was all however reinforced in the following century by all those charming engravings of Queen Victoria, her husband Prince Albert, and all their children, gathered around their Christmas tree.
Christmas Trees bring the beauty of the outside world into our homes, make us smile and, if they are real, they have a wonderful scent and perhaps they even improve the atmosphere. Whatever your style of decorating, whether it be over the top abundance or a more minimalist approach, they are a focal point around which to gather and centre the festivities.
During the rest of the year we look forward to when the deciduous trees first uncurl their leaves in spring and bring back colour into the world, to the spreading shade they give us in summer, the vivid colours of autumn and their sentinel watchfulness through the darker, colder times of the year.
Their value to us is incalculable from their practical support as a building material for joists, floorboards, roof beams, planks for ships and a myriad other items, to their role in recycling carbon dioxide in the great South American rain forests and their place in the life cycle of host of other animals and insects. Our ancestors wrote that the best gift we can give each other is to plant a tree – but more than half of the humans on this planet live a in a town and I suspect would not have anywhere to plant one. Perhaps all of our New Year’s resolutions this year should be to plant a tree. It does not have to be in our own back yard or even in our own country because we are all part of the same world.
I thought next autumn (October 2020) we would curate a History Weekend at Highclere. If we love and understand our history, we might start to realise a little bit better why and how things happen. Perhaps the weekend should start with the history of trees.