Chatsworth’s jaw-dropping Christmas display with 19,000 baubles and 3,500 lightsDecember 12, 2022
When it comes to Christmas decorations, no one does it quite like the team at Chatsworth House. Adorned with 19,000 baubles and 3,500 individual fairy lights, the stately home is a magical winter wonderland that has to be seen to be believed.
But, while thousands of visitors each year flock to the heart of the Peak District to enjoy the decadent display, there’s one woman tasked with making sure every last festive detail is just so. As head of textiles and project lead for Christmas decorations, Susie Stokoe lives and breathes Christmas at Chatsworth.
For the past 21 years, the team has worked hard to turn the house’s 35,000- acre grounds into a festive feast, adopting a different seasonal theme each year. And drawing inspiration from the Nordic winter landscape, this year’s Deep Midwinter: A Nordic Christmas At Chatsworth is a sight like no other.
“I come up with the ideas by being slightly Christmas obsessed – I’m always thinking about it,” says Susie. “I’ll walk down the street and take a note of the colour of something I like and I’m always taking pictures of random things. I have a whole folder on my computer dedicated to things I’ve been inspired by. It’s a big cooking pot of Christmas joy.”
Months of planning
With 24 rooms to dress, finding a theme that’s encompassing enough to do the space justice is Susie’s first challenge – as is picking one that’s sure to impress visitors. “It’s not just about choosing a theme that feels right, it’s also about building on what we’ve done in previous years and what feedback people have given us from those,” she explains.
“Sometimes we have a great idea but as soon as we map it out, it’s not big enough. You don’t want a theme to get repetitive.”
As a result, designing a single Christmas at Chatsworth takes many months from start to finish, with the team already planning 2023’s celebrations. “From conception to delivery it takes 18 months, though the house team begins work for that year’s display at the end of September,” says Susie. “I’ve already got a title for next year’s theme, so I’ll be shopping for decorations in January and February and visiting Christmas exhibitions while the bluebells are coming out in spring.”
This year’s Nordic Christmas theme has an emphasis on the natural world at wintertime, and Susie and her team have pulled out all the stops to make the experience as immersive as possible. “We have 30 real trees plus 10 artificial trees for the historic spaces that can’t have real trees. The Library, for example, has a very important carpet, so we can’t have pine needles falling on that,” she says. “I leave finding the perfect tree to our suppliers though. You don’t want a sparse tree that looks see through or one that’s too full where you can’t see the decorations.”
A mammoth team effort
Unsurprisingly, there’s a lot of decorating to do. With five members of the textiles department and another 12 working in housekeeping and conservation, the entire installation process is a team effort. “We have around 19,000 baubles and 3,500 fairy light bulbs altogether. The big trees need 1,500 to 2,000 baubles each,” explains Susie. “One year, my colleague saw a visitor pulling on a tree and filling her bag with baubles, so now every single one of our decorations needs to be wired to a branch. It’s more work, but unfortunately it’s necessary.”
Given that the historic rooms of Chatsworth are filled with an art collection spanning 4,000 years, the in-house joiners and electricians play a very important role, too. “It’s not as simple as putting a hole in the wall to hang something. You have to think of ways to install things without damaging the house,” she says. “We have 24-foot tall Christmas trees that are very scary to deal with because you don’t want to damage anything when bringing them in. Not a year goes by when I don’t have moments of doubt, because there’s a lot riding on it.”
While the team are very experienced, there is the occasional mishap, Susie admits. “The glass baubles do get smashed but whoever breaks the first one has to buy a bottle of Prosecco that we’ll share when we’ve finished decorating,” she says. “Luckily we’ve always got spare decorations on hand to use in emergencies when things break or when we need to rethink our ideas.”
Despite the stress, there’s no feeling quite like watching guests’ faces light up as they soak up the magical atmosphere – even during the pandemic Chatsworth retained its unique Christmas charm. “We had to close due to Covid in 2020, but the staff all walked through the installation and turned the lights off together,” she recalls. “It was a sad but powerful thing. We wore fancy dress to lighten the mood, and at that moment we were all in it together.”
Susie often finds herself hiding along the route that guests take through the house to take in the sights and sounds of friends and families interacting with the latest installation. “One year our theme was Once Upon A Time and I wanted to get visitors telling stories across generations, so there was a mixture of old and modern stories. At our Charlotte’s Web display I saw a child telling their grandparents the story of EB White’s book,” she says. “It was something I could only have dreamed of. They’ll remember that forever.”
She’s experienced her own poignant moments too. “I lost my father during Covid but he previously came to Chatsworth and we walked around the rooms together,” she explains. “That’s the magic of Christmas. It’s about sharing memories and I’m privileged that it’s my job to help others experience that too.”
For more information and to book tickets, go to chatsworth.org
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