A VICTORIAN CHRISTMAS
I am standing at the entrance to a splendid castle, its fireplace decorated with boughs of mistletoe and ivy, its hallway aglow with lights, and its grand staircase banisters wreathed in garlands of holly.
The rich aroma of stuffed roast goose in a sage and onion gravy draws me to the dining room where distinguished guests exchange animated conversation across a table set in elegant style. The women wear silk gowns, their diamond necklaces winking in the light of candelabra centrepieces; the men sport mutton-chop moustaches and side-burns, and sip mulled wine from crystal goblets. A child's laughter echoes faintly from one of the upstairs rooms.
The ghosts of Christmases past still linger in the rooms of Craigdarroch Castle in Victoria, and although these guests at their Christmas banquet are figments of my imagination, the castle still celebrates this most joyous of all seasons by donning a mantle of dazzling Yuletide finery.
Photo 1 Craigdarroch Castle decked in Christmas finery.
Craigdarroch Castle was completed in 1890 by coal baron Robert Dunsmuir, who spared no expense in furnishing his stately mansion with stained glass windows, oil paintings, and lavish Victorian furnishings. The family history, depicted in photos, memorabilia and information panels in the Exhibit Room on the second floor traces the lives of Robert and Joan Dunsmuir, their ten children and some of their grandchildren.
Today, in the drawing room on the entrance floor, I watch a small girl looking round-eyed at a Christmas tree surrounded by antique toys, its branches arrayed in red ribbons, bows and silver ornaments. In Joan Dunsmuir's first floor sitting room, the mantelpiece adorned with pine cones and boughs of holly draws an admiring 'aaah' from a group of Japanese visitors.
Photo 4 Joan Dunsmuir's Sitting Room
Photo 7 Hatley Castle in a Winter Wonderland
Hatley Castle, built by James Dunsmuir-the sole surviving son of Robert and Joan-is also in festive Christmas attire, and the entrance hall is cheery with twin Christmas trees flanking a fireplace. Festoons of evergreen boughs intertwined with poinsettias and twinkling lights lie across the mantelpiece.
Photo 2 Hatley Castle Hall
Hatley Castle is haunted by ghosts of its past. The family were cursed with tragedy: James Dunsmuir's second son was killed in World War I and his daughters were a strange and wild lot. There are reports of eerie supernatural occurrences for which there are no straightforward explanations, and I wonder whether one of the unhappy spirits inhabiting Hatley is the alcoholic Dola, (James' youngest daughter) whose brief, unsuccessful marriage gave way to an intimate lifelong relationship with actress Tallulah Bankhead.
Leaving Victoria's past and returning to its present, I stroll the corridors of the Empress Hotel to admire a display of sixty or more exquisitely decorated Christmas trees which are part of their annual Festival of Trees celebration. Sponsored by local businesses and organizations the Festival raises funds for the B.C. Children's Hospital-a fitting way to commemorate the birth of a Child born over two millennia ago, whose message of love and compassion lives on today.
Photo 10 Festival of Trees, Empress Hotel
No trip to Victoria at Christmas time would be complete without an after-dark visit to the Butchart Gardens decked out in shimmering Christmas splendour. Visitors gaze at silver spangled trees, willow-the-wisp lights flickering through the bushes, avenues of lighted archways, ginger-bread type houses, and dancing "snow flakes" powdering the trees.
The Butchart's theme of the Twelve Days of Christmas, is an entry into an enchanted world. First up is the partridge in a pear tree, followed shortly after by two turtle doves nestling together, and so on… Particularly charming, however, are three French hens cavorting under a lighted Eiffel Tower, five golden rings floating on a lake and eight graceful maids a-milking. Around a corner, a carousel with nursery rhyme and story book heroines twirl to the strains of music from the Nutcracker Suite, and I pause to watch three children gleefully identifying their favourite Mother Goose characters. At the end of my tour through fantasy-land, I listen to a hearty rendition of Christmas favourites by a four-piece brass band.
But the evening isn't over yet. Under the gaze of twelve drummers marching overhead, courtesy of the Inn at Laurel Point, who have hosted my visit to the Butchart Gardens, I lift a mug of steaming hot, satiny smooth eggnog, laced with an out-of-this-world combination of run and spices, and drink a toast to Victoria's ghosts of Christmases past, and to its magical spirit of Christmas present.
IF YOU GO:
The Inn at Laurel Point is the epitome of elegance and attentive personalized service. For more information go to http://www.laurelpoint.com
Craigdarroch Castle http://www.craigdarrochcastle.com/ Check out their Christmas entertainment programme schedule in the left hand column http://www.thecastle.ca/blog/plan-your-visit/christmas-at-craigdarroch/
Hatley Castle is located on the grounds of Royal Roads Military College and Royal Roads University. Detailed information (including a map and entrance rates) at http://www.hatleycastle.com/
Festival of Trees at the Fairmont Empress:
The Butchart Gardens Christmas Calendar: http://www.butchartgardens.com/planning-your-visit/the-5-seasons/christmas.html
PHOTOS: Margaret Deefholts unless otherwise indicated
1. Craigdarroch Castle decked in Christmas finery.
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