Framed by the dark hills of green trees and moorlands, with the River Derwent flow-ing in front of its expansive lawns, a stately home stands in the heart of the Peak District of England. A centuries-old country residence, Chatsworth is an exquisite blend of all the many years in which it has stood: Tudor exteriors have been replaced with Ionic columns, and the interiors have all adapted to the styles of a variety of eras, forming a pleasant mix of the best of over four hundred and fifty years of interior decorating tastes. It is truly a proud and beautiful example of a centuries-old country house. In fact, it has been awarded the position of the UK’s favorite heritage attraction several times before. But once a year, for a magically short period of time, Chatsworth is transformed into a storybook wonder-land, themed around the tales that children of all ages remember from their favorite volumes of fairy tales and fantastical yarns.
Christmas 2013 saw Chatsworth transformed into Narnia, complete with a wardrobe entrance laden with fur coats, hallways of white winter trees draped in snow, and Aslan preparing for his triumphant return atop the Stone Table. In 2012, the theme was “Pantomime,” with dramatic presentations of thirteen different classic stories throughout the house, includ-ing “Cinderella,” “Snow White,” “Little Red Riding Hood,” and the gingerbread house from “Babes in the Wood.” In 2011, the Christmas carols we all know and love came to life through “Deck the Halls.” And in 2010, the warm and festive colors and songs of Russian culture came to life in “A Russian Christmas,” complete with the Sugar Plum Fairy, Peter and the Wolf, and giant Cossack soldiers.
This year, the building rings with silly laughter and celebrates its unbirthday as well as Christmas, as visitors fall down the rabbit hole and through the looking glass in “Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland.” Through January fourth, visitors can begin their journey by tumbling down a rabbit hole in the North Entrance Hall and into the Mad Hatter’s Tea Party, a game of Queenly croquet, and a table with the well-known “Drink Me” bottle and “Eat Me” cake. In a woodland scene, guests encounter a giant caterpillar smoking his pipe as dreamy sitar music plays. A magi-cal hall of mirrors helps visitors to journey with Alice through the Chatsworth Wonderland. And of course the Christmas element to the scenes is not forgotten, with plenty of trees adorned with lights and ornaments, and garlands draped with baubles and fairy lights.
This year Chatsworth will have fifty-two Christmas trees delivered to decorate with nine hundred thousand fairy lights. Eighteen trees are set up inside the home, and bedecked with six thousand tree ornaments. It’s clear that a lot of hard work, dedication, and love go into the planning of the holiday displays and celebrations every year. In fact, sometimes the planning begins for the coming holiday season as soon as the last ornament is taken down in January. Five people, led by the Duchess of Devonshire, coordinate the planning each year. Many other teams of dedicated textile workers, carpenters, painters, and housekeepers work all year to create all of the displays needed to bring each theme to life. And this year, Chatsworth has also commissioned a stage design company to create an oversized Mad Hatter and Caterpillar for the festivities.
Not only are the displays interactive, but guests can also take part in special events throughout the season. Couples can make reservations for an evening viewing of the decorations, followed by a dinner at Cavendish Restaurant. Or for an extra special experience, visitors can purchase tickets for Alice’s Enchanted Masquerade Ball with a champagne reception, and dinner followed by live entertainment (two evenings in the season). Christmas in the Farmyard promises fun for whole families, and kids can make their own mad hats, white rabbit ears, teapot cards, or traditional reindeer headbands. Nativities in the farmyard offer children the chance to take part in a Nativity play with real farmyard animals. And Professor Shell the Magician will share some of Alice’s magic.
Chatsworth was not always known for its festive seasonal celebrations. In fact, it was traditional for it to close its doors after October for refurbishments. But in 2001, after a terrible year of visitor numbers due to an outbreak of foot-and-mouth disease in England, the team at Chatsworth decided to try reopening the house for the seven weeks leading up to Christmas. The halls and rooms of the lower level, already richly appointed with furniture and classical sculptures, were draped in garland. Massive trees were brought into the large room known as the Painted Room, with a staircase worthy of any Cinderella. The upstairs rooms were left closed to the public so that conservation work could still go on.
Eighty-eight thousand people came to see the lights and decorations. That was enough to convince the Chatsworth team to make their holiday preparations an annual tradition. The next year, they thought to choose a different theme in order to attract visitors back again, “Christmas from Other Lands.” This led to the selection of a different theme each year.
After over a decade of different themes, the Chatsworth holiday team has built up a quantity of decorations that can be reused from year to year. Giant Cossacks can become three wise men—or, this year, playing card soldiers. One element seems to be traditional from year to year: in the grotto, visitors are encouraged to write down their wishes and hang them from the branches of a “wishing tree.” Wishes can vary from silly Christmas lists to sincere heartfelt wishes for the health of a loved one or a parent’s re-turn from war. One thing is clear from the quantity of wishes on the tree every year: Chatsworth’s transformation is enough to make these lucky visitors believe that they are somewhere special, somewhere magical, a place where their wishes can come true.