Photos by Kathryn Shanley
Dundurn Castle, the former home of one of Canada’s most notable politicians Sir Allan MacNab, makes for a great evening tour location to get even the most die-hard Scrooge supporters into the Christmas spirit. This is even truer when the castle is lit up and dressed in its finest, the aroma of freshly baked Scotch shortbread filling the air, while a table laden with mouth-watering delectable goodies sits ready to tantalize your taste buds as you prepare to experience a Victorian Christmas.
The Garden Club of Hamilton decorates the castle every year with wonderful greenery, lovely dried flowers, and beautiful wreaths, striving to maintain the authenticity of a Victorian Christmas. The holidays just wouldn’t be complete for me without experiencing the feeling of stepping back in time and enjoying the grandeur of Christmas at Dundurn.
Your guided tour begins in the castle’s magnificent entrance hall with the stunning black walnut staircase adorned with fresh boughs of greenery. The joyful singing of “Hark the Herald Angels Sing” can be heard throughout the castle as interpreters in period costume lead visitors in a lively carol sing. During the Victorian era (1837-1901), families gathered around the piano singing their favourite Christmas carols while sipping steaming spiced punch.
After entering the elegantly decorated drawing room from the entrance hall, you’ll be impressed by the delightful Christmas tree decorated with candles, delicate fans, cornucopias, tiny trinkets, and treasured handmade gifts. The tradition of decorating Christmas trees was adopted by North Americans after Prince Albert, Queen Victoria’s husband, brought the custom from his homeland of Germany to England.
Though the drawing room is splendid, one of the tour’s highlights for me is a visit to the grand dining room with its French-door windows and breathtaking view of the bay. The splendid dining room table is elegantly set in readiness for a festive Christmas dinner. Up to two dozen guests could be seated around the table including Sir Allan himself who is believed to have sat at the head of the table. The Christmas dinner could last for as long as four hours with the grand finale of traditional Christmas pudding, laced with brandy and set ablaze, being brought to the table and served by the head of the household.
Venturing upstairs to the upper hall, imagine the scene on Christmas Eve, of the MacNab family singing carols around the piano and playing roaring games of musical chairs and charades. Victorians loved telling ghoulish ghost stories of days long past and listening to excerpts being read from books like Charles Dickens, A Christmas Carol. Children hung stockings soon to be filled with candies, nuts, and trinkets if they were from a rich family, or candy, an orange or a piece of coal for luck if they came from a poorer family. Canadian children in the Victorian era may have dreamt on Christmas Eve of ice skates, sleighs, and snowmen typical of a frosty Canadian winter.
Victorians not only enjoyed their winter wonderland at Christmas, but after visiting the stunning dining room, it’s clear they loved a good Christmas feast while sharing the warmth of fellowship and family. I feel a certain kinship with the Victorians—it’s all about the food! The aroma of fresh baked bread wafting from the kitchen is irresistible. Hearty soups, relishes, cayenne cheeses, and homemade bread are served on a table in front of the iron stove ready to be sampled and savoured. Another table is laid out with homemade buttery shortbread, lemon cake, orange gingerbread and my favourite—carrot pudding. Who could resist sampling this array of traditional Victorian Christmas delights.