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Blog and News

Christmas at Parham

Christmas at Parham House & Gardens is a time of quiet family gatherings and reflection on the year that has passed. Lady Emma Barnard recounts some of the more memorable anecdotes of Christmas from bygone days, including the time in 1939 when her great-grandparents took in 30 evacuee children from Peckham in South London. 

4th December 2020

People sometimes ask what Christmas is like at Parham, and are also curious about how it would have been celebrated here years ago.  My family and I keep things very quiet, as we love the peace here when there is almost nobody around.

There is always a lot of activity at Parham, and even without visitors, this year hasn’t been an exception.  For us, therefore, Christmas comes as a precious, private time.

One tree is never enough

We indulge in two Christmas trees; this originates from the time my children were little; we used to put unbreakable ornaments on the one in the room where we normally sit and save the more fragile ones for the other, on which we could safely shut the door.

We decorate the trees until they are laden with silver tinsel and every conceivable bauble and trinket. Some of the decorations are now very old – many belonged to my great-grandparents and my great-aunt, and they date from the early twentieth century. We have very delicate glass ones of all descriptions, and tatty little glittery ones which I think must be just post-war, as well as those we have accumulated over the 27 years we have lived here. It’s a glorious hotchpotch. The boxes that they are kept in, too, are very old friends. My favourite one has the inscription “New Wire, 1939”, in my great-grandmother’s handwriting.

Christmas before the war

In the days before the Second World War my great-grandparents Clive and Alicia Pearson would have a big tree, grown somewhere on the estate, put up in the Great Hall. I still have the little red candles on clips that they used. It’s always a miracle to me that the House didn’t burn down when I think of the mishaps that could have happened, not to mention the little draughts which always seem to whirr around an old house even on the stillest of days.

We have no records of any big estate parties in the Great Hall round that tree, so I imagine Christmas must have been a very quiet affair in those days as well. Nowadays I and my family still use the Great Hall in the winter if we have people to stay for a weekend, but our Christmas trees are in warmer rooms.

Rather curiously, we have very little information about what went on at Christmas in bygone days, and I don’t remember my great-aunt Veronica ever telling me anything about it. She always came to be with us in Ireland when I was growing up, so all my Christmas memories with her are in quite a different place.

My great-grandparents came to Parham in 1922, and up to the early 1980s, when Parham was still a large estate, the various departments – forestry, works, Gardens, House – were all very separate and the system was extremely formal. The departments didn’t really know each other, and the estate staff never came into the House, nor were there ever big estate parties round the tree in the Great Hall.

All the families who lived and worked at Parham were always given a meat voucher for Christmas, which they could spend with the local butcher in Storrington. Its value accorded with the number of mouths to feed in all the various families.

Our Warden, Valerie, who grew up here and whose mother was a housekeeper, remembers that from the 1960s on my great-aunt Veronica would give all the house staff tea towels with a design incorporating the calendar of the new year to come. This explains why there are still so many from years gone by in the linen cupboard – I had always wondered!

Evacuee children enjoy a Christmas at Parham

There are two little Parham Christmas stories to tell, however, both dating from the Second World War. In 1939 my great-grandparents took in 30 evacuee children from Peckham in South London. They arrived with the minimum of clothing, and that Christmas they were all given wool dressing gowns as a present. The children had never seen dressing gowns before and were so delighted with them that most refused to take them off, insisting on wearing them day and night. On another year they were all given a hairbrush each – these became treasured possessions.

Many years ago, when I first moved in, I found a rough green wool rug with a black cat on it, and a simple stool with a cover embroidered with roses.  These were carefully packed away, and I wondered about their significance.  I knew they couldn’t have been done by my great-grandmother or great-aunt, who were both very accomplished needlewomen, but experience had (even in my early days here) taught me that there’s nothing in this house without a meaning.  These particular objects were, however, a mystery.

One summer, some years later, we had a visit from one of our evacuees, by then an elderly man. Amongst other stories, he told me that he remembered making a rug and sewing a stool cover as Christmas presents from the evacuees to my family. All the little boys helped. I rushed to find them, and he became very emotional when he saw them again; they have been proudly on display ever since.

Canadian soldiers throw a peculiar party in the Great Hall

My final story comes from the Great Hall again, but this time in about 1943 or 1944, when the Canadian soldiers (troops of infantry, mainly engineers) were in residence at Parham.  My family vacated the half of the House now open to visitors, and the Canadian officers moved in, with rest of the soldiers living in Nissen huts in the Park.

The Canadians liked to give Christmas parties. One Christmas they asked permission to build a wall on top of a groundsheet in the Great Hall, promising not to spoil the floor. That evening, much to everyone’s astonishment, my family arrived at the party to find all the Great Hall walls hung with camouflage netting, stuck with rhododendron branches that they assured my great-grandmother hadn’t been cut from the estate!

In the middle of the room was a little pond, filled with water pumped round by a compressor, with four goldfish – hired from the pet shop in Worthing – swimming frantically against the tide. My great-grandmother insisted that they build a backwater for the poor fish. Happily, both they and the Great Hall floor survived the ordeal, and the party was a great success.

Happy Christmas from us all at Parham!