by Lady Carnarvon
Christmas at Highclere combines both ancient rituals bearing witness to centuries of traditions and more modern customs culled from my own family. Combined with the beauty of the land surrounding us, it provides a heritage that makes Christmas here uniquely special.
Entertaining is, in every way, the essence of Christmas. This Christmas, we have “channeled” the medieval heritage: Highclere was owned by the Bishops of Winchester for over 800 years before the Carnarvon family, acquired the estate and house.
A new medieval palace was built here in the 13th century – where the castle now stands. Made of brick with a tiled roof and most likely an inner and an outer courtyard, there would have been a gatehouse, a chapel, and a range of ancillary buildings, including guest accommodation, a brewery, buttery, kitchen and bakery, hen house and goat house, stables, ox sheds and cart houses in addition to vast cathedral-like barns to store the grain.
Like any great feudal estate, Highclere Palace would have aimed at a fair degree of self-sufficiency. From a deer park, oaks forests, pasturage, orchards, vegetable, and herb gardens, and five fish ponds. There was a large and profitable sheep industry alongside arable farming, including wheat, barley, and oats. Dairy goods are frequently referenced in the estate records, particularly cheese and butter. Several forms of fresh meat were available, including rabbit, pork, mutton, beef, and venison.
Although beer may have been invented by the ancient Babylonians, it was perfected by medieval monasteries, which gave us brewing as we know it today. Medieval Highclere had its own brewery using barley from the estate. Today Highclere’s beer is made locally and sold only at the castle.
Equally impressive is the religious contribution to distilled spirits. Without a doubt, mead was brewed at Highclere and perhaps other spirits as well. Today the castle is famous for its award-winning Highclere Castle Gin, wrapped in its purple bottle like the bishops of old and made using botanicals from the estate.
The book “Christmas at Highclere” is a journey through Christmas at Highclere, both past and present, through food, feasting, and celebrations. Winter foods are the fruits and cuts of meat which we gain from the “wantonburthen” of the “teeming autumn” (Shakespeare Sonnet 97) and are at the centre of our celebrations, both formal and informal.
Family and friends gather together to share food and gifts, toast the year past, and look forward to new beginnings. It is the time of year when almost everyone in the world stops, and, at its heart, it is the time when we contemplate and celebrate with those dearest to us, the precious gifts of life, love, and hope for a fulfilling and happy new year.
At its heart, Christmas Day is, of course, a Christian religious festival, but today it is observed as a major celebration and public holiday in countries around the world by both Christians and non-Christians alike. In some countries, it has simply become incorporated through global cultural influences, which has led to many of the more secular aspects of Christmas, such as gift-giving, decorations, and Christmas trees being enthusiastically adopted.
Toast to Christmas with a Highclere Castle Gin Cocktail.