House Beautiful: A Victorian Christmas at Craigdarroch Castle

There is no better way to experience a true Victorian-style Christmas than to visit one of Victoria’s landmark homes — Craigdarroch Castle. This opulent home, now a national historic site in the heart of the city, has been decked out with vintage decorations, holiday greenery, peacock feathers and colourful ribbons befitting its time and place in history.

The castle was built by coal baron and Scottish immigrant Robert Dunsmuir during Queen Victoria’s reign. It was meant to be Dunsmuir’s retirement home but, unfortunately, he died a year before its completion in 1890.

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Despite his death, the Dunsmuir family did move into the stately, hilltop home, with its 39 rooms and more than 20,000 square feet of living space.

Dunsmuir’s wife, Joan, lived there, along with three of her daughters, until the daughters were married and moved to Great Britain.

The Dunsmuirs’ seven other children had already left home and had places of their own when the castle was completed.

Thus, Craigdarroch Castle was only a family home for 18 years, until Joan’s death in 1908.

But what a home it was, with one of North American’s best examples of residential stained and leaded glass windows (33 of the original 47 art glass windows are still in place), interior oak panelling and a grand oak staircase that looks down over four floors. The intricate woodwork is evident throughout most of its rooms. The home enjoyed electricity and gas and had hot-water radiators that still work today. The house — the family never called it a castle — was even ahead of its time with a burglar-alarm system.

Only one interior photograph from the Dunsmuir era has survived showing some of the family members sitting in the massive and lavishly appointed drawing room. While it’s not a holiday photograph, one can imagine opulent decorations would have not been out of place here.

“It was Prince Albert who introduced garlands and pine trees to Christmas decorations and you would have seen over-the-top decorations, as well, in the homes of other Victorian-era families,” says John Hughes, Craigdarroch Castle’s executive director.

Hughes said planning for a Victorian-style Christmas at Craigdarroch Castle begins early, and an interior decorator, with the help of three staff members, starts putting up the decorations at the end of October to be ready for December.

A Christmas tree with vintage toys under its boughs is the main feature in the drawing room, and many of the home’s 17 fireplace mantels have been decked out with garlands, making them eye-catching focal points.

The home’s dining room has also been set for a Christmas feast, including a traditional boar’s head on a side table. And in the billiards room, another Christmas tree is on display, along with yet more garland and ribbons.

One of the most impressive Christmas displays — and the castle’s year-round wow factor — is in its front entrance, with its intricate oak panelling and beautiful staircase, now festooned with garlands. (There is no elevator in the castle, so visitors who want to visit all four floors, including the top floor ballroom, must be prepared to walk up 87 stairs.)

The entrance hallway is where you will find the first of many decorated mantels — this one showcases a carved wooden clock, featuring a buck and two deer. The clock is one of the few original artifacts belonging to the family still on display in the castle.

After Joan’s death, all of the furnishings, lighting, paintings, silver and other household items were auctioned off. While only a handful of the original items have been returned, the Craigdarroch Castle Historical Society has recreated what it would have looked like during the Dunsmuirs’ residency.

Also after Joan’s death, the 11-hectare estate was subdivided and the castle was raffled off to one of the land purchasers as an incentive, since the lots were slow to sell initially. The castle served as a military hospital for returning First World War soldiers from 1919 to 1921, and afterwards housed students from Victoria College, including authors Pierre Berton and First Nations artist Bill Reid.

The Victoria Conservatory of Music was also housed here at one time. After it left in 1979, the castle was entirely in the hands of the Craigdarroch Castle Historical Society, a non-profit group that now operates the castle and welcomes more than 150,000 visitors annually.

This holiday season, the society has planned many festive events, including film nights and concerts featuring everything from jazz to medieval and classical music from now until Dec. 30. All performances are free with castle admission.

The Classics at the Castle Movie Series returns with the show Gremlins being screened in the castle’s dance hall on Dec. 27 and the 1994 version of Little Women on Dec. 28.

Scenes from the latter movie, featuring actor Winona Ryder, were filmed at the castle. Doors open at 6 p.m. Tickets for the movie viewing and castle tour are $14 for members and $24 for non-members.

A staged reading of A Christmas Carol by Charles Dickens with actor Jason Stevens takes place at the castle Dec. 17 to 23. Showtimes are 6 and 8 p.m. Tickets are $22 for members and $25 for non-members.

A Victorian-themed school program has also been organized for school groups up to Dec. 19, with guides dressed in costume, as Dunsmuir maids and butlers, leading students on a 75-minute tour of the castle. The program is recommended for pre-school to Grade 5 students.

To book any of the holiday events go to www.thecastle.ca or call 250-592-5323.

kpemberton@shaw.ca

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