Mrs. Bell and her family used to dress up in very fancy clothes for Christmas. These were kept in storage in a chest in the attic. Christmas Eve was a hive of activity for the staff preparing for the next day. A single large Christmas tree was placed in the Front Hall and this was decorated with streamers, silver balls and other decorations kept over from the previous year. The family put their presents under the tree.
On Christmas morning, Mrs. Bell and her family went to church. Even the Protestant servants went to church, possibly for the only time in the year, apart from Easter. After breakfast, Mrs. Bell came around to all the staff with presents; I remember I got a white apron. She also went around the village distributing gifts to her tenants.
On Christmas morning, the family went to the library to exchange presents. They loved gifts such as books and music records or ornaments or exquisite boxes of chocolates. The chocolates lasted for weeks as they usually only ate one at a time.
On Christmas day, the servants had dinner, turkey and ham, in the middle of the day in the servants’ hall. The Bell family helped themselves to a cold lunch in the Dining-Room, which we had prepared beforehand. This was the only day in the year that they waited upon themselves so that we could enjoy our Christmas dinner.
In the evening, the custom was for all the servants to line up in the Hall to watch the family pass by into the dining room, dressed in all their glitter and glamour – Major and Mrs Bell, the Captain and Rosie, Evelyn and her first husband David Petherick, and Susan. We had to bow to them as they passed by. I remember one year in particular when I could scarcely stop myself from laughing. Mrs. Kevin, the housekeeper, carried a bell behind her back and as she bowed to each individual, the bell rang out each time!
This is an excerpt from Behind the Green Baize Doors: Fota House Memories of Patricia Butler. We are so lucky to have Patty and her niece Eileen’s writings about life in Fota House, above and below stairs, in the middle years of this century. Copies of Through the Green Baize Doors are available in the Fota gift shop.