The perception is that the riotous feasting and drink-fuelled festive season that has come to characterise Christmas is a modern innovation.
But step back exactly 300 years and conspicuous consumption of all kinds was very much a part of the mid-winter calendar with parties, games, plays, jokes and copious drinking all on the menu from December through to early January.
The Bishops of Durham were no exception when it came to joining in the merriment – an unexpected side to the prelates that is being celebrated at their former home at Auckland Castle.
The heritage attraction in Bishop Auckland is rejoicing in a Georgian Christmas as it marks both the 300th anniversary since the House of Hanover ascended the British throne, and the major remodelling of the castle that took place in the 1700s, turning it from a medieval fortress into a sophisticated Gothic-inspired country seat.
The outdoors has been brought indoors with the state rooms decked in traditional Georgian Yuletide greenery and 18th century festive fare such as proper minced meat pies, on the Library Tea Room menu.
And drawing the showcase together is a special Twelfth Night cake that homes in on the saucier side of the Prince Bishops.
Visitors are invited to relive the excitement of the celebrations courtesy of award-winning arts company November Club who have designed and made a bespoke Twelfth Night cake and set of playing cards.
It’s a festive romp through the lives of the Georgian Bishops of Durham centred on the Long Dining Room, with the Twelfth Night Cake forming the magnificent centrepiece to a Christmas table set under the gaze of the castle’s internationally renowned paintings of Jacob and his 12 sons.
It is little known that the nine Georgian Bishops of Durham displayed to varying degrees all the debauchery and rumbustiousness of their non-religious contemporaries. The first, Nathaniel Crewe, who had a wife 40 years his junior, was renowned for his lavish hospitality and opulence!
The second, William Talbot, was in his youth allegedly a “great Rake,” who was “very much addicted to gaming.” The frivolities associated with a Georgian festive season would have no doubt appealed to him.
Each of the bishops is represented in the elaborate Twelfth Night cake, once an integral part of Christmas before dying out in Victorian times. Indeed, it was the 12 days of Christmas rather than Christmas Day itself that was the focus of celebrations back then.
Starting on Christmas Eve there would have been feasting, music and dancing every day presided over by a specially appointed Lord of Misrule whose job it was to be in charge of the high spirited partying.
Auckland Castle’s Twelfth Night Cake is being used as a vehicle to delve into the cheekier side of the Georgian Bishops.
Sets of irreverent playing cards featuring ribald anecdotes about each of the 12 characters depicted on the sumptuous confection – they include the King and Queen of the Bean elected as a result of finding a bean or pea in the cake and the Pastry Chef represented as the maker – have been commissioned.
These would once have been used by guests to draw lots for the characters they would play over dinner.
Visitors are being invited to draw a card before hearing more little known and sometimes salacious anecdotal information about their chosen character from Auckland Castle’s volunteer guides.
Dr Ria Snowdon, Auckland Castle’s project curator, says: “It’s a bit of festive fun and by picking out the saucy anecdotes we are showing the human face of the bishops and imagining how they might have marked the season.
“While we don’t know what the bishops actually did we can surmise they wouldn’t have missed out on the chance to have a good time.
“It was a licence to let your hair down – which is just what we hope visitors will do too.”
* Auckland Castle, Market Place, Bishop Auckland, DL14 7NR, is open December 5, 6,7; 12, 13, 14; 19, 20 and 21, 10.30am-3.30pm. Admission is £4 for adults over 16.
Visit www.aucklandcastle.org for details of other festive events taking place at the castle during December.