Julian Fellowes writes a Christmas story for Country Life

My mother was very good at Christmas. This, I know, can be a source of some irritation to my darling wife and I am sorry for it. I have often told her that she doesn’t have to compete with the memory of my late parent when it comes to either cooking or dressing, in both of which Emma effortlessly leads the field, but when it comes to Christmas, I am afraid I must hand the bays to my Mama.

Quite what makes a good Christmas is hard to say, of course. That mixture of the traditional and the novel, that balance between eating and play, that careful casting of the dramatis personae, are all, as elements, filled with pitfalls, although obviously the setting helps. We lived, for most of my growing-up years, in a fairly large, if architecturally undistinguished, rectory-like house in East Sussex.

It had panelling and open fires and a big hall for the tree and all the other folderol associated with Yuletide and, when the festivities arrived, its bedrooms would be crammed with a mixture of friends and family, old and young, as my mother believed that, unlike birthdays or anniversaries or even New Year’s Eve, a successful Christmas can only ever be a group activity, and preferably a large group at that.

My three brothers and I made a fractious basis for any party and I remember she always invited at least one guest who was not especially well known to us. This person would be different every year and would be spending the holiday with us for a variety of reasons, but one semi-stranger was invariably present. Years later, I asked her about this curious detail and she nodded. ‘It was the only way to make you all behave,’ she said.

And so Christmas would be played out, according to our own family ritual. Midnight Mass on Christmas Eve, stockings to wake up to in the morning, presents after breakfast, always preceded by singing Good King Wenceslas in a sort of conga round the hall-the choice of hymn never varied-and then friends would come in for a drink, which would be followed by a light luncheon. After this, there would be a walk or a film on television and, at about 5pm, tea, Christmas cake and Tree Presents.

These last were, I think I am right in saying, peculiar to my family and grew out of our fury as children that all the giving and receiving was done too soon. Each of us would have a couple of ‘extra’, lesser presents from under the tree, usually of the book or record variety, distributed by my mother, dressed up as Father Christmas.

Looking back, I’m not sure why it was she, and not my father, who undertook this task and donned the costume, but I don’t believe he ever attempted it, and my mother was always the one in the red hat and the beard, ho-ho-hoing as she dished out the last presents of the day. An unlooked-for result of this curious custom was that my niece, Jessica, then three years old, was once heard to greet the Father Christmas on duty in Harrods with a cheery ‘Hello, Grandmama’, which must have puzzled the amiable out-of-work actor inside the fat suit.

That ritual accomplished, the party repaired upstairs to change into black tie for dinner and, after the feast was consumed and the crackers pulled, still wearing those terrifying paper hats, we would play ‘The Game’ and then fall contentedly into bed. As a routine, it never varied, but nor did it disappoint.

However, there was one occasion when we missed out a key ingredient, and I suppose the most vivid memory that I have of a childhood Christmas comes from that time. It was Christmas Eve during the Great Freeze of December 1962. I was 13 and it was, and remains, the coldest winter that I can remember. It so happened that, for some days before, there had been continual and heavy falls of snow and this really was, for once, a completely white Christmas.

We had dined and, at about 11.30pm, it was time to set out for our local town of Hailsham and its rather unprepossessing, 1950s church (all the Catholic churches of my childhood seem to have been Nissen huts or modern mistakes) for Midnight Mass. We piled into my father’s car, a Rover I think, although, at this distance, I can’t be certain, and we started on our skiddy way.

We carefully negotiated the turning at Muddles Green, the beguilingly titled outskirt of the village of Chiddingly where we lived, and, gradually, with some difficulty, made it to the A22 that would take us to our destination. We had, however, got no further than the little hamlet of Lower Dicker (the names alone seem like something out of ‘The Famous Five’), when the vehicle began to splutter and cough and, finally, to die. Cursing loudly, my dear but irascible father nosed it onto the hard shoulder and we all climbed out.

The mobile phone existed only in the pages of Dan Dare in those days and there wasn’t a telephone box for miles. Even if there had been, the chances of getting somewretched man from the AA to attend us at nearly midnight on Christmas Eve seemed pretty slim and, at last, my mother made the decision that we would simply have to walk home and deal with the situation the following morning.

And so we set off. It wasn’t too long before we had turned away from the main road and what traffic existed, in that com-paratively car-less world of long ago, was left behind us. We were alone, a family walking home through a silent, moonlit, winter wonderland. We boys were slightly troubled, as we all knew that there would be a serious problem getting to church the following day, partly because the car would not be mended until after Christmas and partly because the ritual of the festival wouldn’t easily accommodate such a dramatic break with tradition.

Sensing this and to still our fears that the morrow might be spoiled, my mother suggested that, having missed Mass that night, instead of attending a service that year, we should sing carols as we walked back.

Although a Catholic, as we all were, she had converted from Anglicanism to marry my father in 1935, and although I don’t recall that she had any crisis of conscience or regret about this, there is no doubt that, throughout her life, her Saviour remained essentially English, without a trace of Rome or anything as uncomfortable as the Old Testament about Him. As a result, the God of my childhood was a sunny, reasonable being, a figure of infinite understanding and impeccable manners, who could be guaranteed to take a moderate view.

‘God wouldn’t expect us to go to Church on a day like this,’ she would say when the rain was lashing down, or, on a later occasion, when told of the new fashion to extend Sunday Mass with strangers’ christenings that would inevitably make one late for lunch: ‘I’m sure God would never approve of that.’

Just so, on the evening in question, her benevolent and social Lord came to her aid, assuring her that a chorus of carols would do nicely when it came to the Fellowes family marking His importance on His birthday. I can see the pair of them now, my mother, still a very pretty woman, in
a pinkish coat with a high, mink collar and my father in country tweeds, leading the procession, arm in arm.

Together,we sang the inevitable Wenceslas (the only carol my father really knew the words to) and Silent Night and Adeste Fideles as we tramped along on the shimmering, crunching snow, staring up at the star-filled night sky behind the glistening trees, and not caring much, I think, if we disturbed the sleep of the country folk past whose houses and cottages we marched, singing at the tops of our voices.

I can’t quite explain why I felt so happy at the time, nor why, even after so many years, it still constitutes a golden moment for me, but it does. My parents are both dead now, my childhood home is sold and my brothers long scattered around the globe, leading their busy lives. But that midnight, winter walk on a cold and brilliant Christmas Eve remains one of my best and brightest memories, and I suspect it will do so until my dying day.