Across the snow dusted roof, around the pinnacles of the Tower, Santa Claus was in his sleigh gliding behind the reindeer and looking for the right chimney. That is the trouble with Castles: there are too many chimneys and too much choice. Tap and clatter went Donner and Blitzen’s hooves across the valleys and the ridges of the roof high above the bedroom ceilings. The children’s stockings were laid at the end of the bed, and carrots and mince pies at the foot of the chimney. Santa Claus or Father Christmas has quite a few names but is always large, benevolent and has a great many elves producing a vast number of presents. Here at the Castle gift shop, Sally and her elves have been dispatching presents as well, although they have to stagger across the courtyard to the franking machine rather than leap into a handy sleigh.
The Bible tells us wise men brought presents of myrrh, frankincense and gold to the baby Jesus, not actually at his birth but sometime later. That symbolic date is now set as Epiphany: January 6th, giving us the twelve days of Christmas. We assume it is three Magi as there are three gifts but there could have been many more magi and they clubbed together to share the gifts. They were called wise men and then kings, which rather assumes that kings (or those in charge) are wise. In a rather modern way, the Magi – Balthasar, Melchior and Caspar are from different ethnic groups and diverse in heritage.
As children we were not supposed to open our Christmas presents until after lunch. It was probably so that our mother or Nanny could ensure presents were accurately catalogued for the subsequent thank you letters but it was also a marvelous lesson in patience. Predictably, said thank you letters were quite a painful process for my mother. Me and my sisters sitting at the table, empty paper in front of us, saying we had nothing to say, couldn’t think of what to say and that the paper sheets were too big. I ended up going through the same patient and very painful process with my own son. He would spend so long arguing with me he could have written four letters in the time he had spent disputing the paper, pens, number of lines and what he was going to write. Normally he wrote about the weather. Very English!
My sisters and I try to agree to whom we are giving presents in order not to make “giving” a stressful competition. Equally I do not like wasting money by buying something out of desperation. I always like Winston Churchill’s quote: “We make a living by what we get. We make a life by what we give.” One year I gave Geordie and Eddie a tiny cocker spaniel puppy called Rosie. Thirteen years later, imperfect in sight but still going strong, she has given us so much love and friendship, plus two more puppies a few years later. Dogs however are a big decision and we live in the country and already had a Labrador.
During the First World War, Lord Carnarvon was most concerned that the families and, later, widows living at Highclere had sufficient food and resources at Christmas. We still have some of the present lists. Almina, his wife, for her part would organise a party for the local children – some 500 children.
Christmas Day is magical because it brings people together in larger numbers, with pageantry and song, before they disperse to gather again with friends. It is a lovely story both simple and complex, underpinning a structure of life. The heart of Christmas is to remember it is not just once a year and that the focus is on giving rather than getting, “for it is in giving that we receive”. Never easy for children to understand when Santa does not read the present list!