25 ways to get into the festive spirit

·17-min read

Forget the Grinch, last year it was the pandemic that stole Christmas and as we gingerly approach what we might sentimentally refer to as the happiest time of the year, we’ve not yet forgiven it. Having skipped a year, many of us are hoping to make Christmas extra special this time around and who can blame us. We all want to make this festive season count and to enjoy it in a meaningful way with people we haven’t seen in a while. Even those of us who are normally too busy to plan ahead for Christmas are this year happily opening up our diaries. Others, who would typically grimace when decorations come out early, are excited about seeing old faces again and by thoughts of doing something commemorative for once.

Activities like carol singing, grotto-visiting and those that involve reviving old traditions or indulging in nostalgia might have seemed passé before but have now acquired new meaning. Most of us have a strong urge to get out and do, or see, something. To make the festivities tangible. On top of this, various lockdowns have stirred in us a passion for crafting that shows no sign of fizzling out just yet. What better excuse than Christmas to get the wire clippers and glue out?

All we really want for the 2021 festive season is to have fun with family and friends. The good news is that a variety of events are being planned up and down the British Isles which should ensure that, this time around, no one misses out on an opportunity to get into the Christmas spirit. So hang a star on the highest bough, browse the activities overleaf, and have a merry little Christmas with someone you missed out on spending time with last year.

The ghost of Christmas past

A Georgian Christmas, Herefordshire

Step inside Christmas as it was celebrated in the 18th century at Berrington Hall
Step inside Christmas as it was celebrated in the 18th century at Berrington Hall

Step inside Christmas as it was celebrated in the 18th century at Berrington Hall, a Henry Holland mansion, where the festivities will be Georgian in style. The fireplaces will be dressed with dried flowers, traditional decorations hung and an elegant Christmas tree will stand by the staircase. Explore the servants quarters below then head out to the garden to take a photo with the giant Christmas pudding yew balls. Children will want to find the den-building area but the most romantic way to see the grounds is by snuggling up on a horse and carriage ride (costs extra), available during the first three weekends of December.

Until Jan 2; £13 (child £6.50); nationaltrust.org.uk

Christmas japes, Dorset

Never mind the Lord of the Manor, it was the Lord of Misrule who took control of proceedings during the festive season at Corfe Castle in the 17th century. This new, temporary lord had the power to choose which games, dances and other diversions should occupy the time of the important guests at the Christmas feast. Modern-day visitors to the ruined castle – which looks particularly atmospheric at this time of year, standing in a valley subsumed in winter mist – can hear all about the fun had at such times during tours led by a resurrected Lord of Misrule. Families can also go on a quest for hidden shields and warm up beside a fire pit.

Various dates; entry £10 (child £5); nationaltrust.org.uk

Post-war Christmas, Kent

The Christmas of 1946 was the first that Sir Winston Churchill and his family spent back at Chartwell after the war. With the house dolled up for the festive season, visitors will see that Lady Churchill favoured a classic style, with natural greenery from the grounds decorating mantle pieces and vintage Christmas cards strung along the walls. Churchill’s Bottlescape still life painting, which depicts a collection of Christmas empties, is displayed in the house and a trail encourages visiting children to go on the hunt for bottles, just as Churchill’s were once asked to. The bottles hidden in today’s garden, however, contain ingredients that make up a recipe for a festive treat. Carol singing will take place at weekends.

Nov 27-Jan 2; entry £14 (child £7), bottle trail £2; nationaltrust.org.uk

Nutcracker scenes, Oxfordshire

Step through the doors of 18th-century Blenheim Palace at Christmas and enter the magical world of The Nutcracker, where oversized soldiers from the toymaker’s workshop are hidden in rooms full of surprises. The Baroque palace this year displays a fantastical re-imagining of the classic Christmas tale about toys that come to life. Guests can travel through the Land of Snow to enter the Kingdom of Sweets, with its candy canes and giant gingerbread men. Look out too for the Sugar Plum Fairy and her music box with a difference, all created by Bafta award-winning costume and set designer Clare Elliott. Outdoors, visitors can also enjoy a mile-long illuminated trail and a Christmas market on the grounds.

Until Jan 2; combined ticket £50 (child £30); blenheimpalace.com

It’s Christmaaaas, Worcestershire

Tinsel may have fallen out of favour in today’s stylish homes but it is still used in all its riotous glory at Hanbury Hall, an 18th-century stately home. Visitors at this time of year will do the time warp back to the late 20th century to find the house ablaze with colour, with Slade on the stereo and Babycham flowing. Adults will enjoy nostalgia from Christmases of the 1970s and 1980s, inspired by tales of the lively parties held here during this period. Expect toys from the era to reminisce over and a party atmosphere in the main hall of this William and Mary-style country house.

Until Jan 3, 10am-4pm; £8 (child £4); nationaltrust.org.uk

Regency feast, Wiltshire

Imagine a grand Christmas dinner scene unfolding before you as you tour the impressive rooms at Stourhead, which will be draped in seasonal finery. The dining table in the saloon will be set up for a Regency-period dinner party, serving a feast fit for Sir Richard Colt Hoare and his friends. Each Christmas tree has its own theme here, with one covered in thousands of rainbow-coloured felt flowers made by volunteer crafters to represent the spring and summer blooms many missed out on seeing at Stourhead this year because of the pandemic. Outdoors, a lights and laser trail leads visitors through the autumnal colour of the grounds, down to the Palladian bridge, which is reflected over the lake.

Until Dec 23; £18 (child £9); nationaltrust.org.uk

The Queen’s pantomime, Windsor

Christmas at Windsor Castle - Alamy
Christmas at Windsor Castle - Alamy

See what the Queen and Princess Margaret once wore as pantomime costumes in a memorable exhibition to mark Christmas at Windsor Castle. The six outfits include an Aladdin costume and were worn during wartime when the teenage princesses helped to stage a series of Christmas pantomimes to raise money for the Royal Household Wool Fund.

Also at the castle, the State Apartments will feature magnificent Christmas trees, garlands and twinkling lights. There will be drop-in storytelling and also family-centered crafts where children can design their own pantomime costumes and make stages.

November-Jan 3; £23.50 (child £13.50); rct.uk

Walking in a winter wonderland

Santa & elf dash, Cardiff

Dress as an impish elf or pay tribute to the big man himself by donning a white beard and going full Father Christmas for this charity run. The route starts at Roald Dahl Plass in Cardiff Bay and crosses the barrage before turning back, so it is perfectly doable in an ill-fitting pair of felt trousers, though dressing up is not actually compulsory. Walkers are encouraged to participate also and spectators can even bring children, pushchairs and dogs onto the route to cheer others on. All the ticket money raised at Wales’s biggest festive fun run goes to charity.

Dec 5 at 12pm; £10; santadash.wales/home

Torch lit carols, Monmouthshire

For something gentler in the Wye Valley, carry a flaming torch (children use glow sticks) on a parade that winds its way through dark streets to the windowless medieval arches of Tintern Abbey. The roofless, 12th-century abbey’s annual carol service is always well attended and the arrival of the light-bearers creates a special atmosphere, as school choirs sing out from the gothic-style, floodlit building. The congregation having swelled, everyone then joins in singing some of the most well-known carols. The event has previously raised £5,000 for rotary charities.

Dec 4, 6-8pm; free; rotary-ribi.org

Christmas walking tour, York

Hear about the time when heathen revelry and wanton excess ruled the streets of York. A time that has nothing to do with today’s office Christmas parties but everything to do with the city’s historic mid-winter celebrations of years gone by, including the Norse Midwinter Festival, the Roman Saturnalia and the Solstice.

Blue Badge tour guide Sarah Cowling leads a 90-minute walking tour along cobbled streets, revealing why York claims to have held the first-ever Christmas celebrations and where Rudolph the reindeer got his red nose from.

November-Dec 24, daily at 4pm; £12; yorkchristmaswalkingtour.co.uk/schedule

Winter poetry walk, Gloucestershire

For a stroll that invites quiet contemplation at a time of peace, look no further than Dyrham Park, where two trails have been designed for adults. Choose between a poetry walk or one that focuses on mindfulness while exploring the 270 acres of parkland at this 17th-century country estate. The poetry trail runs through tranquil, wooded terraces, with signs providing the chance to reflect on 17th-century winter verse amid the scenery. The mindfulness trail wanders through the parks and gardens, with suggestions along the way for places to stop, connect with nature and focus on your emotions.

Daily; entry £13 (child £6.50); nationaltrust.org.uk

Deck the halls with boughs of holly

Paper and tree decorations, Shropshire

Busy your hands making simple but striking Christmas decorations that will be personal to you and will evoke memories when you get them out of the box the following year.

In Shrewsbury town centre, the Hive venue has classes showing how to make delicate winter pom-poms to string about a room and on making tree decorations that children can put together under the watchful eye of local artists. Anyone looking for a different style of decoration can sign up to create paper snow birds too, the crafting of which is like folding origami but with pleated fans and a twist.

Dec 4, 11, 18 & 19; £5; hiveonline.org.uk

Quilted stocking making, Gloucestershire

Come Christmas Eve, soft stockings that are roomy enough to be stuffed with treats are a gorgeous and – some would say – essential accessory for the fireplace. If you don’t have one that you love yet, or if you fancy giving one as a gift, the Harmony Quilt Company in Chipping Sodbury can help. Participants can bring their own festive fabric or they will be provided with some, so they can sew together stockings with guidance from experts in a bespoke quilting studio. Patterns and wadding are provided and the experience lasts for six hours.

Various dates; £75; yuup.co

Macrame wreath making, Southampton

Get on board with the recent trend of macrame and give the traditional practice of wreath making a makeover while you are at it. Classes on macrame wreath making are being held in Southampton City Art Gallery and the knotted designs, which combine with a willow wreath, will make your festive door stand out. Other workshops being held in the run-up to the big day include wire reindeer making, the decorating of hessian sacks used to hold presents and Christmas card making, whereby a set of six cards can be made using a range of mixed media and printing techniques.

Various dates; from £7; southamptoncityartgallery.com

Traditional wreath making, Bath

Wreath-making at Flowers of Bath - Andrew Crowley
Wreath-making at Flowers of Bath - Andrew Crowley

Originally woven from the excess limbs of a Christmas tree, a festive wreath is a beautiful way to welcome guests into the home. And they are easier to make than you might think. Those looking to master the skill should book a slot at a wreath-making workshop, such as those running at Flowers of Bath, a florist in Bath. Owner Ella can advise on threading a wreath from traditional foliage, or has DIY wreath-making kits to send out. The quiet focus required to create a wreath is the perfect way to work a little mindfulness into a hectic, pre-Christmas schedule.

Various dates in Dec; £70 for two hours, flowersofbath.co.uk. Wreath making kits for those of you who cannot make it to a live class, Waitrose is offering a ‘make your own wreath’ kit, available to purchase at waitroseflorist.com

Santa Claus is coming to town

Santa’s caves by 4x4, Shropshire

If you like your grottos looking, well, cave-like, then the Hawkstone Park Follies is the place for you this Christmas. Adventurous families will find it a hoot to book a Land Rover to whisk themselves away beneath a stone wishing arch and up to caves that were once used as a filming location for The Chronicles of Narnia. Dressed in fairy lights, tunnels will lead through the sandstone cliff to a proper Santa’s grotto, where echoes of “ho, ho, ho” bouncing off the rocks will reveal the man himself, surrounded by presents. Wear cave-appropriate footwear.

Dec 3-23; £145 for a vehicle for up to six people; hawkstoneparkfollies.co.uk

Reindeer safari, Flintshire

 No need to travel to Lapland this year – take a reindeer safari in Wales instead
 No need to travel to Lapland this year – take a reindeer safari in Wales instead

At a time when flying abroad is problematic, it is good to know that there is no need to schlep all the way to Lapland. Reindeer safaris are possible in Mold, Wales, and children can enjoy surveying Santa’s herd in paddocks from the comfort of their car. The herd can be seen in the daytime, against a backdrop of the frosty Welsh countryside, or at night, when there are illuminated trails to discover. The site also offers a drive-through Santa’s grotto, one of a few that have been created this year for families who would rather maintain a safe distance while enjoying some festive spirit. Every child will receive a toy, plus there is a drive-through theatre show promised and an elf workshop to see, too.

Nov 27-Dec 24; from £39.50 per car; reindeerlodge.co.uk

Festive owls at Longleat, Wiltshire

As the nights darken, families can combine meeting Longleat’s wild animals with a walk around the park’s outdoor lantern display and a miniature train ride to meet Santa. Children can find the bearded chap in his woodland grotto where he will have a present for them, as part of a separate ticketed event. Other seasonal highlights at the park include a singing Christmas tree and a new storytelling experience called the Flight before Christmas. Owls interact with a festive tale as it is being told, by swooping over the audience’s heads. There is also a new theatre show taking place in the Longhouse, where the Elf show sees two elves preparing for a Christmas like never before.

Until Jan 3; from £36.95 (child £27.70), Santa train £6 (child £19.95); longleat.co.uk

Storytime with Mrs Christmas, Northumberland

Father Christmas just does not have the great taste in footwear Mrs Christmas possesses and children will be able to see her and her sparkly shoes once more at Wallington this year. Father Christmas’s wife will be reading stories from a comfy chair at the house, which will have its grand rooms decorated in a festive style. Pass by the servant’s parlour to take part in various Christmas crafts on December weekends, tap your toes at live music in the central hall or gaze up at the giant tree in the courtyard. Father Christmas will occasionally be dropping in, too.

Various dates; entry £15 (child £7.50); nationaltrust.org.uk

Santa’s fairground grotto, Edinburgh

The Scottish capital is magical at Christmas and, in the heart of the city at West Princes Street Gardens, families will find Father Christmas’s grotto amid the bustle of classic fairground rides.

Children can sit and listen to the man in red tell a fairy tale, before he hands out gifts and then poses for a photograph with them. Afterwards, children can burn off their excitement by racing around a Christmas tree maze, or by taking a ride on a chair-o-plane or a big wheel.

Nov 20-Dec 24; Santa’s Grotto from £8.50; edinburghschristmas.com

Santa’s steam train, Norfolk

 Ho, ho, ho! Visit Santa’s Grotto by North Norfolk Railway this Christmas
 Ho, ho, ho! Visit Santa’s Grotto by North Norfolk Railway this Christmas

Thomas and Chuggington fans will love the idea of journeying to meet Father Christmas on a full-size steam train, and adults might find a ride on the North Norfolk Railway quaint too. From Sheringham station, passengers board Santa’s steam service and after a toot, the train pootles off to Santa’s grotto at Weybourne. A hot chocolate or mulled wine is included and children will receive a gift from Santa before heading back to Sheringham. Alternatively, after dark, the Norfolk Lights Express travels from the same station. Covered in thousands of coloured lights, it passes different illuminated scenes alongside the tracks.

Various dates; from £22; nnrailway.co.uk

Now bring us some figgy pudding

Make your own gin, Yorkshire

Impress Christmas guests by serving them your very own gin, handmade using tabletop copper stills in the picturesque surroundings of Ripley Castle. Gin-making students head out into the historic walled gardens here to pick fresh botanicals that they can use to create their own mix. Sampling award-winning G&Ts as they go, they visit a large distillery for inspiration first, then make their own individual bottles of gin to take home with them. Best of all, their recipe remains on file should they want to create more bottles of it in the future. The experience lasts around three hours.

Weekends in Dec; £125; harrogatetipple.com

Iced biscuit decorating, London

Iced biscuit decorating, London
Iced biscuit decorating, London

Learn how to use icing to create characters or pictures on biscuits that you can then give as gifts – or keep for yourself. The Biscuiteers bake gorgeous biscuits across two London venues – Notting Hill and Clapham –that would make great stocking fillers or can be presented in keepsake tins. For the festive season they are running workshops to teach intricate decoration techniques. Participants could choose to create characters from Raymond Briggs’s The Snowman, for example, or on another date, could decorate biscuits to look like baubles for a tree.

Various dates; from £90; biscuiteers.com

Gingerbread City, London

Each winter, an entire miniature city is created from gingerbread and exhibited on Motcomb Street, Belgravia. With more than 100 architects, designers and engineers working on this year’s project, the city is a festive must-see for children who love building at home – or just anyone with a sweet tooth. With the theme of “nature in the home”, visitors can expect a pocket world of ecologically-friendly iced buildings. Those inspired to make their own gingerbread houses can join daily afternoon or evening workshops suited to the whole family.

Dec 4-Jan 9; £14 (£8.50 child), workshop £40; thegingerbreadcity.com

Mead and banqueting, York

Bored of mulled wine? Clink a tankard of honey-scented mead with friends this Christmas and learn about how people used to celebrate in the Middle Ages. Mead-tasting sessions (with nibbles) are being planned for York’s Barley Hall, a reconstructed medieval townhouse, by the award-winning Lancashire Mead Company. Guests will learn about the historical and cultural significance of the drink, while supping a range of examples. The hall is also hosting a festive medieval banquet, where the old customs and symbols of Christmas will be discussed, and another night where a food historian will discuss the cultural significance of humble gingerbread.

Various December dates; mead tasting £35, festive banquet £68, gingerbread history £30; barleyhall.co.uk

How are you getting into the festive spirit this year? Let us know in the comments section below

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