Christmas Past at Nanteos


The Illustrated London News 1859

Christmas Time at Nanteos

Although the celebration of Christmas time with feasting goes back many centuries, it was only in 1848, after Prince Albert introduced the German custom of the decorated Christmas tree in the home, that the celebration of Christmas in Britain became noticeably commercialised. By the 1860s, it was no longer primarily a religious festival held in churches and chapels, but a time for family-based entertainment. A little later, in the 1870s, Santa Claus (or Father Christmas) was introduced as a key figure in the festive season, and the exchange of presents and gifts began. However, the full commercialisation of Christmas along with the introduction of cards and festive decorations in the home, took several years to reach West Wales, and the full celebration of Christmas became a new phenomenon.

©The Illustrated London News, December 1848

By the time William Beauclerc Powell took over the running of the estate in the 1880s, Christmas festivities had become well established as a customary celebration, with trees and decorations. However, at Nanteos, religion still remained at the forefront during the festive season, with two services and full sermons being held during the day and well-attended concerts held in local schools prior to Christmas day.

By the 1880s, Aberystwyth was full of seasonal, Christmas fare, with shop windows overflowing with goods and treats to sell to passing shoppers. Mr William Rowlands the Butcher, on North Parade generally had the best display in town, with all his prime, fresh meat displayed outside. The vast bulk of the meat sold at Christmas came from the local gentry’s estates (including Nanteos). Seasonal greeting cards were sold by Mr Gyde, the photographer, in Pier Street. Game dealers such as Mr E.P. Taylor in Terrace-road, Mr Wilkinson in North-parade, and Mr Saycell in North-parade all boasted fine window displays, as did the confectioner’s shop on Pier Street.

 Christmas tree in the Entrance Hall at Nanteos

Christmas preparation and celebrations at Nanteos

Christmas was a busy time on the Nanteos estate, and by the 1930s, the preparation for the festive season began even earlier in the year, with the storage sheds in the walled garden filled to capacity with enough fruit and vegetables to serve not only the Christmas season but to last throughout the winter months. Reg Newman, the head-gardener, grew peaches, figs and pears specially intended for the table. A pig would be killed, salted and hung in the game larder ready for Christmas and the New Year, while pheasants, hares and partridges were also stored there.

A Harrods Christmas Hamper full of exotic treats, silverside ham and expensive teas would be delivered to the mansion, and kept under lock and key in the still room. Just before the big day, turkeys from Mr Thomas Jones of Cefnllech (an estate farm close by in New Cross), would be delivered in readiness for the main Christmas lunch.

Mince pies and plum pudding baked at Nanteos on their Vigars kitchen range.

Dan Stephens, who worked for Reg Newman in the garden in the 1930s, would be busy from late November making wreathes of ivy, laurel and holly from the Nanteos woods to decorate the house and to sell in the local shops.

The front door of the mansion

Decorating the house for Christmas was an important part of the festive preparations. A tree was carefully chosen from the estate’s woodland and placed in the entrance hall to be decorated. The inner hall staircase was draped with a holy garland, and the walls of the Christmas room on the second floor were covered with cards.


After being bequeathed the estate in 1911, each Christmas Eve, Captain and Mrs Powell would have the household staff congregate in the entrance hall, where they would sing carols around the Christmas tree and eat hot mince pies. In addition they would have a piece of mulberry pie made from the ancient mulberry tree growing in the shrubbery, before enjoying a glass of mulled wine by the fire. At the end of those celebrations, each member of staff was given a gift of money, and wished a Merry Christmas by the head of the household. Later in the evening the festivities would continue in the servants’ hall with songs and dancing.

A modern day photograph of a Christmas tree in the Entrance Hall at Nanteos, possibly located where the tree stood back in the day.

On Christmas morning the Powell family, together with their staff, would make the three-mile journey to St. Padarn’s Church in Llanbadarn Fawr. On returning to the mansion after the service, preparations for the Christmas meal began in earnest, with the cook putting the finishing touches to the all-important dinner while giving orders to the kitchen maids who would be rushing around carrying them out. The Christmas dinner was scheduled to be on the table at 12 o’clock precisely, and the dining room had to be laid out to perfection by the butler and footmen.

Christmas was a happy time at Nanteos with lots of comings and goings; exchanging gifts and entertaining family and friends. Numerous visitors would call at Nanteos over the Christmas period and attend the many parties held there. Games such as ‘Sardines’ and ‘Hide & Seek’ were played throughout the house, though no one was allowed to enter ‘Billy’s Bedroom’. He had been killed during the First World War, and his room had been kept exactly as it was when he left to go to fight.

In years gone by, one of the highlights of the Christmas entertainment was the harpist Gruffydd Evans; he was a relative of the Powell family and known as the official harpist to the family. He attended Christmas at Nanteos every year for sixty-nine Christmases and played in the music room. He lived to the grand old age of 92, and is buried at Llanbadarn Fawr Church (sadly his memorial stone cannot be found in the cemetery today).

Christmas was of course an extremely busy time for the kitchen staff, who not only had Christmas Day itself to contend with, but the next day had to prepare for the Boxing Day hunt - the biggest event in the Nanteos hunting calendar.

Preparations for it began several days before the hunt. Cawl was made in huge pots; roasting meats were prepared and roasted, and first thing on Boxing Day morning a large pot of rice pudding was placed on the fender to boil. Loaves were sliced and sandwiches made, cakes were baked and puddings were made ready. By late afternoon, once the preparations were complete, a huge feast food was laid out on tables in the reception rooms of the mansion, in readiness for the return of the hunt.


The Boxing Day hunt set off early in the morning, but before leaving to follow the hounds, the hunt master, hunt servants and hunt followers would be given a warming stirrup cup of port or sherry. On their return to Nanteos they would be welcomed with hot mulled wine to comfort them after their long day in the saddle. Once inside, the feasting began with ale, beer and wine, accompanied by Cawl, sandwiches, hot and cold pies, cold meats, chutney, pickles, rice pudding, tarts, and much more. The house would be overflowing with people, and the high-spirited banter and laughter would echo down the corridors. Clearing up later on in the evening was a mammoth task, especially with all the mess caused by muddy boots tramping in and out of the mansion.


Cawl in a Powell Crested dish

Even with all the entertaining of family and friends over the Christmas period, the Powells did not forget their estate workers. An annual party was held for them, usually in the New Year, when they would be given their Christmas bonuses. The workers would sing songs and recite verses for the hosts, and at the end of the evening, before receiving a Christmas box of groceries and meat they would sing ‘For he’s a jolly good fellow’ to Captain Powell, and good health and happiness to all.

The parish poor were not forgotten either. The land agent would travel around the district in his pony and trap, delivering boxes of groceries and meat to the needy. The postman would also receive a tip each Christmas. For example, in 1902 he received a tip for 10s.[i] It is also said that not even a beggar would be turned away from the door at Nanteos without being given a few coins and food.

Margaret Powell especially enjoyed Christmas, and during the 1920s she would take a lot of time and care in choosing Christmas gifts for her family and friends. The estate children were welcomed into the house for tea during the Christmas holidays, and could run around the house having great adventures (including sliding down the bannister in the inner hall when no one was looking!). The children would dress up in clothes from days gone by, including a wedding dress that was once worn by a Powell bride. Having lost her only child, Margaret Powell enjoyed having children around filling the mansion with fun and laughter.

As the New Year approached, the day-to-day work of the estate continued, and some New Year’s traditions held fast. A caller at the back door of a house was a strong tradition in Wales, and a dark-haired man calling was seen as especially lucky. The householder opening the door would receive: salt for seasoning, silver for wealth, coal for warmth, a match for kindling and bread for nourishment. However, if the first visitor to the house was a woman or a red-haired man it was considered terribly unlucky.

The cook would prepare a New Year’s dinner for the family and their guests, and later in the evening a dinner would also be held in the servant’s hall for the outdoor as well as the indoor servants. Like the Christmas festivities, it went on late into the night, with songs and dancing.

On the first day of the New Year the local children of the area would call at Nanteos for ‘Calennig’, an ancient custom of wishing a household the best of health and prosperity for the whole-year. Going door-to-door, the children would be given money and a gift as a thank you. Various Welsh songs would be sung, and verses recited. The one below is one of the most popular of the Mid-Wales area.


Blwyddyn Newydd dda i chi
Ac i bawb sydd yn y tŷ
Dyma fy nymuniad i
Blwyddyn Newydd dda i chi


A happy New Year to you

And to everyone in the house

This is my wish to you

A happy New Year to you

During the cold, winter months, the lake at Nanteos would sometimes freeze over, providing a rare opportunity for ice skating. This snippet of news in the Cambrian News and Merionethshire Standard of 17 January 1895 demonstrates the fun to be had – ‘Hockey was played on the lower pool on Friday and Saturday, there was a great deal of skating on both pools’ – just another example of the enjoyment and merriment to be had at Nanteos during the Christmas and New Year period.



The Mansion surrounded with snow (2018)

An amusing Christmas telegram sent to Margaret Powell from her brother Lewes on Christmas Day 1940.

In conclusion, Christmas was seen an important time on the estate; it gave the family a chance to show their gratitude to their workers and to thank them for the hard work involved throughout the year in keeping the house and the estate in tip top condition.

After 1918, however, after losing their son and heir it must have been difficult for the family to celebrate Christmas, but they stood strong, and continued to thank their staff for their hard work over the previous twelve months.

[i] National Library of Wales, Nanteos A54

Cook’s Cawl

2 tbsp. lard dripping

2 large onions, thickly sliced

2 medium swede, peeled and cut into 1" cubes

6 large carrots, peeled thickly sliced.

4 leeks, cleaned and sliced

2 lb potatoes, peeled and quartered

2 lb brisket of beef

Pale Ale, one pint

Parsley, chopped

Sprig fresh thyme

Large pot of water


Simply boil all ingredients in a large pan until cooked; then serve hot, tastes even better the following day, serve with bread and cheese.

Nanteos Christmas Pudding

8 oz moist brown sugar

8 oz chopped suet

8 oz sultanas, cleaned

8 oz raisins, halved and stoned

4 oz currants, washed and dried

4 oz shredded mixed candied peel

4 oz of plain flour

4 oz breadcrumbs

2 oz almonds, blanched

Rind of a lemon, grated

3 eggs

Pinch of salt

A spoonful of nutmeg grated

Half a teaspoon of salt

Quarter pint of milk

1 small glassful of brandy

A few pieces of silver threepences or sixpences

Simply mix all ingredients and steam for 8 hours.



©Janet Joel 2014


Snow February 1991

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