The Acton Family: Victorian Farm
PUBLISHED: 22:15 08 February 2010 | UPDATED: 16:24 20 February 2013
Where better to celebrate a traditional Christmas than down on the Victorian Farm? Rachel Crow spoke to those involved in the making of this month's festive episodes of the popular BBC2 series
The Acton Scott estate has gained national acclaim as the location for the phenomenally popular BBC2 series Victorian Farm. Home to the Acton family since the 11th century, the period buildings and unspoilt rural position at the estate just over the border in south Shropshire, along with the expertise of Thomas Acton, a leading authority on Victorian farming and his son Rupert, made it the perfect location for this journey back in time.
This month the stars of the original series will return to our TV screens for Victorian Farm Christmas. Just as more than six million viewers tuned in at the start of the year to follow the trials and tribulations of TV presenters Alex Langlands, Ruth Goodman and Peter Ginn as they got to grips with traditional and laborious farming practices, the three-part Christmas special promises an even greater dose of nostalgic appeal. We will witness the team immersing themselves in the Victorian farming cycle and recreating many of the tasks and crafts of the festive season at the end of the 19th century, from greetings cards and crackers to the rich array of festive food.
Charles Dickenss A Christmas Carol was the best-selling book after the Bible in the 20th century and captured the spirit of the time and everything we associate with modern Christmas, which was devised by the Victorians, so it seemed appropriate to dwell on Christmas and look at it in isolation: see the way people not only prepared for Christmas but also prepared for winter as well, says David Upshal, Executive Producer at Lion TV and the mind behind the Victorian Farm concept.
The Acton family will once more enjoy their cameo appearances, with both Tom and Rupert, who manages the estate, proffering advice on Victorian winter preparations and Toms grandchildren Florence, Sophie and Edward enjoying the traditional Christmas games and entertainment. Toms son, Lieut.
Col. Francis Acton, can be seen wearing a 19th century Yeomanry Officers uniform. It is this personal family involvement in the series that gives it its intimacy and charm.
The presenters moved back in to the familys Grade II Elizabethan mansion in the South Shropshire hills from June to August this year and filming on the farm recommenced.
Complementing the research of the Lion TV crew and the experts they brought on board, including the worlds only cracker historian, the Actons have maintained archives that feed their knowledge of the Victorian period and were able to draw upon memories and anecdotal information passed down through the generations.
A lot of the evidence that we have comes from my late great grandmothers diaries. She was living in the late Victorian era and her diaries are quite detailed and tell us what they were doing on certain days during the Christmas period. We were also able to lend them props and toys from a bygone age that had been gathering dust in the attics of Acton Scott Hall for years, says Rupert Acton.
While we may look back on the Victorian era through a rose-tinted haze, life was far from easy. Without adequate preparation for winter, including the all-important hay harvest (which thwarted Alex and Peter in the first series due to the monsoon summer) there would be no festive downtime.
One of Ruperts suggestions on the winter maintenance was the restoration of the villages blacksmiths forge involving many disciplines in 19th century building techniques. The blacksmiths shop hadnt been used for 50 years and was still very much in early 19th century condition. It was like going into a time capsule, he says.
The preparations for the Christmas festivities themselves include making a Christmas pudding in a traditional copper, making mincemeat for the mince pies and homemade crackers, to cutting down the Yule log that would be kept burning over the Twelve Days of Christmas.
The festival then started on Christmas Day so it is completely different to the way it is celebrated today. You wouldnt start decorating your house or having any festivities until that day, explains Rupert
David says: Yes Victorians invented Christmas and it was celebrated in a new and novel way at that time. There was a change of emphasis and the look and mood and tone of Christmas came from this era. So we didnt want to be anachronistic and pretend it was the same as now, but we wanted to pay homage to the things we owe to the Victorians and look at what had genuinely been invented in that period. It always amazes me how much regional variation there was at the time.
While we may be a little jaded by contemporary Christmas celebrations which seem to arrive earlier every year; for the Victorians it was still a novelty and the era also witnessed the small beginnings of a consumerist culture.
Gift giving wasnt really the point of Christmas before. If you did give gifts they would be very modest or be home-made. Victorians for the first time began looking at custom-made things in the shops; chocolates and confectionery were a big fad and the concept of showing your affections by buying somebody something was an Victorian invention, although it didnt exist to the degree it does now. It was a novelty rather than an expectation, says David.
On Christmas morning the family and crew attend church service and sing along to famous carols but with the twist that each is sung to a traditional regional tune, in what will be the first time these tunes have been heard in more than 150 years.
The feast for the farm workers follows in the schoolhouse. The tradition of turkey gracing the Christmas table originates from this period but for some, who could afford it, the feast was far grander, as we see in the series with the preparation of the Christmas Pie, an elaborate dish of pigeon stuffed in a partridge stuffed in a duck stuffed in a chicken and covered with decorative pastry.
While there was a difference in the level of festivities depending on your position in society, there was a spirit of Christmas that has become obscured in our modern customs.
There was an element of social responsibility and a spirit of benevolence to share and give to those less fortunate than yourself, explains David a viewpoint supported by Rupert Acton. The Victorian version of the Christmas meal was grander for the upper echelons of society but for the everyday person Christmas was a much shorter and simple celebration than today. The average agricultural labourer or farmer would have a meal and be back on the farm in the afternoon. Perhaps they looked to their boss or landlord to provide some cheer and thats what the role of our family would have been in the 19th century.
The Acton family enjoyed the punch and traditional Christmas games recreated by the Lion TV crew and were able to furnish the team with a Victorian Christmas card from their archives, while Rupert presented the team members with the gift of an orange each, as his great-grandmother had recorded giving to the farm tenants in her diaries.
David says: Its the curiosity of seeing something as familiar as Christmas but not as we know it; from chopping down a Christmas tree rather than going to supermarket to buy one, making a gift for someone rather than buying one and making Christmas crackers. It was really, really rewarding.
The German-inspired Christmas imported by the Victorians saw the introduction of:
The 12 Days of Christmas which start with Christmas Day and finish with the eve of Epiphany on 5th January
Christmas cards the custom of formally exchanging written greetings, helped along with halfpenny postage rate introduced in 1870
Christmas crackers Invented by Tom Smith, a London sweet maker in 1846. These developed to include love notes, paper hats and small toys
Christmas Trees Queen Victoria's German husband Prince Albert helped to make the Christmas tree popular in Britain.
Decorations cheery, colourful dressing of tree and home
Turkey emerged supreme as the essential Christmas Day dish
Presents the new convention of giving gifts caught on very fast creating a market for manufactured toys, chocolates, Christmas themed ornaments etc
Carol Singers Carol singers and musicians visited houses singing and playing the new popular carols
Father Christmas/ Santa Claus Father Christmas was originally part of an old English midwinter festival, a sign of the returning spring. The stories of St. Nicholas (Sinter Klaas in Holland) came via Dutch settlers to America. From the 1870s Sinter Klass became known in Britain as Santa Claus.
Victorian Farm Christmas is due to be aired at 8pm on BBC 2 on December 8, 15 and 24. A Make Your Own Victorian Christmas website at www.bbc.co.uk/victorianchristmas will feature 25 festive projects.
The Number One best-selling Victorian Farm book published by Pavilion, has been updated to include a section on Christmas.
For more information including Victorian-themed stays at Acton Scott visit www.actonscott.com