As the light begins to fade on a chilly December afternoon, hundreds of candles are twinkling into life at Holkham Hall. The 18th-century Palladian-style house, the seat of the Earls of Leicester, is a hive of activity as various members of the estate staff are busy sprucing up garlands, hanging last-minute baubles and checking fairy lights, in preparation for the first group of visitors to embark on a candlelit tour of the spectacular Christmas decorations that adorn a selection of the hall’s staterooms, corridors and below-stairs rooms.
The tradition of the Christmas trail at Holkham dates back to 2011, when it was a more low-key affair. “It took about four or five years to get it right,” says the Countess of Leicester, who, with Christmas connoisseur Catherine Zoll, is heavily involved in putting the display together each year – an increasingly mammoth task. “In the beginning, we decorated the staterooms and we had actors playing the parts of butlers, cooks, leprechauns, Queen Victoria, all sorts,” says Catherine.
“We simply opened the doors on a set number of days to have people come into the hall.”
“The problem was that if it started raining, everyone would suddenly pile in,” recalls Lady Leicester.
Things have rather snowballed since then. The decorations have become more elaborate, with a different theme for each room, and there are set, ticketed entry times for a 45-minute candlelit tour. There are about 40 Christmas trees stationed in and around the hall, a series of events – from concerts to canine carol services – and up to 800 visitors are expected each day until the trail closes on December 30.
“It’s our busiest time of the year; there’s a lot of admin involved,” says Lady Leicester. “Someone has to water 70 poinsettias every other day, replace any dead batteries, check all the lights. It takes two people about an hour and a half just to light all the candles each time. It’s quite labour-intensive.”
Every year, each room has its own theme. Lady Leicester and Catherine usually visit Christmas trade fairs in Frankfurt and Birmingham early in the year for inspiration – although, due to Covid cancellations, this year more than ever their ideas have come from their own imaginations. “The Christmas preparations are a slow- bubbling cauldron over the year, which hots up in September,” says Lady Leicester. “Often, it will start with us just standing in a room and saying, ‘OK, what can we do here?’ We don’t have an overall theme, because we like to do something completely different in each space. That’s what makes it unique, and what’s so enjoyable about it.”
The hall closes at the beginning of November, at which point the estate staff all pull together to make and assemble the schemes before the first tour starts. “We have four weeks to make our vision happen, and along the way there will be spirals of other visions, so we’ll add in more things as we go along, and there’s always a lot of last-minute tweaking,” says Lady Leicester. “It’s hard work, but that’s how the magic comes.”
Among the nine magical room sets this year are the Marble Hall, the imposing colonnaded entrance hall lined with pink-toned alabaster, where a row of Christmas trees stands each side of the staircase and a galaxy of moons and stars is suspended from the ceiling.
The South Drawing Room, lined with crimson silk damask, has become the Moss Room, with a fantastical Alice-in-Wonderland-esque dining-table setup featuring chairs strewn with ivy and dotted with toadstools; while the South Dining Room plays host to the Red, White and Blue Room, a homage to the late Queen, with a nostalgic afternoon- tea setting and a huge collection of red, white and blue-wrapped presents stacked in a Christmas-tree formation.
Beyond, the Statue Gallery, a serene space lined with niches displaying classical statuary, has been transformed into a Narnia-like scene, with mini villages of handmade, candlelit wooden houses set between willowy birch trees on snowy mountaintops.
It isn’t purely a visual spectacle, either: each room also has its own soundscape – ranging from a live pianist in the Marble Hall to the National Anthem playing in the Red, White and Blue Room – and each also has its own scent, wafting from strategically placed scented candles. “We always think about how each room should smell, right from the start,” says Catherine. “Sometimes, it’s something traditional, such as orange and cinnamon, or forestry scents like pine and eucalyptus, but we’ve also had gingerbread, macaroon, marzipan... It just adds to the whole feeling.”
The Christmas trail is dedicated to creativity, fun and celebrating the magic of Christmas; but this year, rising energy bills have added extra pressures. Holkham’s mission statement is to become the UK’s most sustainable rural estate, and to that end, certain measures are already in place: “We use low-energy LED lights, anyway,” says Lady Leicester, “and the heating is from a biomass boiler. We do as much as we can, but it’s hard, because Christmas is all about lights. At first, we just had a few fairy lights, now we’ve got uplighters, downlighters, stalk lights, lights down the drive, lights in the trees... it’s all got very sophisticated. We’ve adjusted the timers on the lighting as much as we can, so we’ve shaved off a bit from not having all the lights on constantly.”
There are further challenges, too, in creating displays filled with the wow factor, without damaging the walls, ceilings and architectural features of a historic building such as Holkham. Fishing wire is the clever, if rather prosaic, solution in the Marble Hall and also the Bee Room, where an assortment of fluffy, golden bees that appear to be in flight are almost invisibly suspended from a network of transparent wires stretched from wall to wall and tied to mouldings: no nails or hooks necessary.
A similar system has been used in the Jungle Corridor, where faux foliage and iridescent decorative parrots cover the ceiling in the passage leading to the Old Kitchen in the basement, and the exposed pipework here is disguised by further greenery, making a virtue of a less aesthetically pleasing element.
The mantelpiece displays are among the most stunning in the house, with exuberant garlands studded with baubles decorating each one. The trick here, says Catherine, was to replace floristry Oasis, which would previously have been used to hold a garland in place, with a more sustainable alternative: “We place heavy little wooden boxes on the mantelpiece and fill them with gravel and chicken wire, and the garlands are then wired onto the chicken wire to secure them.”
Then, of course, there is the issue of fire risk: many of the candles are now battery-powered, and naked flames are protected by glass coverings.
This practical and thoughtful approach to assembling the schemes also extends to the way in which the props and decorations are sourced. “Of all the sets and structures that we build, I’d say 90 per cent of it is using materials we’ve already got around the hall,” says Catherine. “In the Statue Gallery, for example, the structure of the mountains is made from boxes and packaging, covered with a fake-snow blanket, and the little wooden houses have been built using repurposed wood. In another room, we’ve stacked old wine crates in a Christmas-tree shape and filled them with poinsettias, which looks really effective. We’re trying to use people’s time and creativity as much as we can, rather than just buying everything in.”
The decorations that they do need to buy in, depending on the room themes, are sourced from small suppliers in the UK where possible, and reused year after year in different ways. “It’s something we are always aware of,” adds Catherine. “Although we don’t recycle room themes by any stretch, we are thrifty in the way we use and reuse our decorations.” Visitors who came last year might recognise the parrots in the Jungle Corridor, for example, which were flying around the Marble Hall last Christmas; and baubles that have been used in previous years are available to buy secondhand in the giftshop.
One of the advantages of having the resources of the estate is the scale of props to be found: the cellar alone is, says Lady Leicester, “an endless Aladdin’s cave” of weird and wonderful objects to use: this year, a stuffed alligator that had been gathering dust for years has made it upstairs, stationed as part of a botany tableau.
There’s a make-do-and-mend element to many of the schemes: a pair of old red trousers stuffed with packaging and inserted into a pair of riding boots to resemble Father Christmas’s legs are a favourite decorative feature for returning visitors and are placed somewhere different each time – this year, they’re emerging from the chimney in the Old Kitchen.
The Old Kitchen is the setting for one of the most inventive displays and is almost entirely created from what was already there. It all started with the copper pans that line the shelves along the walls: “We thought, let’s do something with them,” says Lady Leicester. “Then we said perhaps we should decorate the table with them, so that’s where we got the idea for making cake stands from the pan lids, and putting the copper jelly moulds on top, like cakes. Then we thought, actually, let’s do a really big tree.” The latter was constructed from a series of stacked wooden shelves, cut to size to make a Christmas tree shape, upon which the copper pans are interspersed with church candles.
A garland of faux ivy and red berries, dotted with copper baubles and copper-sprayed fern fronds, gives a further decorative flourish, and the effect, when the candles are lit and reflected by the copper surfaces, is a magical, cosy glow and a luxurious look that it’s hard to believe comes from a collection of utilitarian household objects.
It’s just one example of the creativity and attention to detail that make a tour of the rooms an awe-inspiring experience. “One thing we’ve learnt,” says Lady Leicester, “is that we have to go overboard a bit. Due to the sheer size of the rooms, decorations just get swallowed up. The first year we did it, we used every single decoration we had sourced for the house in one room, because the scale is so vast; you need masses.”
“Our motto is more is more,” understates Catherine.
And as for Christmas 2023? The planning starts in January. “We walk around the rooms on the last day that the decorations are up and start to come up with themes for the following year,” says Lady Leicester. “In fact, we’ve already had a few ideas.”
How to bring the magic of Holkham into your own home
Choose a few places to create big, bold displays, rather than spreading decorations around the whole room, advises Catherine. “You could put a beautiful wreath on the door, and then have key spots within the house where you really go for it.”
Target all the senses: choose different seasonal fragrances for different areas of your home – the entrance hall, sitting room and kitchen, for example – using scented candles, or natural products such as clove-studded oranges, eucalyptus and sprigs of rosemary.
“There are so many household objects and it might not occur to you to use them in your Christmas display. You need repetition, so you need a lot of one thing to create a theme,” advises Lady Leicester. If you have a collection of similar objects, be it vases, jugs, candleholders or even houseplants, put them together on a shelf or mantelpiece and intersperse them with foliage, tea lights and perhaps the odd bauble to make a festive display.
When you’re putting together an arrangement for the dining table or mantelpiece, think about grouping objects together, and try not to have everything at the same height. “When we’re doing a table setting, we often arrange bricks or boxes down the middle of the table to create different heights, and place candles or decorations on them,” says Lady Leicester. “It’s nice to draw the eye to different levels.”
Emulate Holkham Hall’s displays by arranging groups of objects in Christmas-tree formation – for example, Christmas cards stuck to the wall or pinned to a noticeboard.
To give baubles more impact, remove the metallic or plastic tie and hang them from pieces of coloured ribbon instead. This works particularly well when hanging baubles from mantelpiece garlands, and is also an easy way to create a colour scheme for the tree.
When choosing fairy lights, consistency is key. “The really nice lights for table settings are the battery-powered micro ones on copper wires, rather than having strings of lights on black cables – the copper wire really vanishes so you just see the lights,” says Lady Leicester. “And stick with one type of light,” adds Catherine. “If you’re going with warm white, stick with that and don’t let anybody persuade you into the twinkly blue-white ones. If you love coloured lights, go all out – just don’t mix it up.”
Unless you have an enormous dining table, there often isn’t room on the tabletop for decorations at Christmas. A frame over the top of the table is a creative way to add wow factor – a hanging rail that can be clamped to the sides of the table can be picked up online from Amazon from about £20. “We used a camera backdrop stand for the dining table display in the Moss Room,” says Catherine. “We wound faux foliage around it to disguise it, and hung some tree decorations from it; we didn’t laden it with too much. It’s fun and you can use it year-round. It would look lovely on an outdoor table in summer with lanterns hanging from it.”
If you want to hang decorations from walls or ceilings but lack fixings to tie them to, try damage-free adhesive fixings such as Command hooks or similar (available from hardware shops), which can be stuck to the wall or ceiling and removed when the decorations come down.
Should your Christmas tree turn up looking a little thin and straggly, build it up by attaching extra fir branches or sprigs of faux foliage with cable ties. An alternative, says Catherine, is to go large with decorations: “Even if it’s a small tree, if there’s a bit of a gap between branches, get some big baubles and hang them to fill that hole, and tie ribbons around the fixing on the bauble for extra impact.”
Candlelit tours start tomorrow and run until December 30; to book, visit holkham.co.uk
Visit the Telegraph Live YouTube channel to see a walk-through of the main Christmas rooms at Holkham Hall, and watch a wreath-making tutorial with florist Katie Haydn-Slater of Wild Oak Workshops