By Maureen Panchen

 The History of Christmas Cheer and Melons at Minterne


You might be expecting a narrative on the merits of a tipple or two under this heading but we take our Christmas Cheer very seriously here at Minterne.

There is a Rhododendron which flowers each month of the year, and December is no exception as this wonderful plant flowers during this winter season. and Christmas Cheer is a truly exceptional variety of Rhododendron; definitely one of our favourites!

One of the earliest flowering Rhododendrons, the name of this plant comes from the fact it used to be forced in to flower in greenhouses and then used as a magnificent decoration on the Christmas table!

At first, the buds are a light pink and these open up to reveal a beautiful truss of blush-pink flowers that eventually mature and fade into an almost white. A spectacular plant that is both fully hardy and easy to grow, a true gardeners delight. The evergreen, rounded, dark-green foliage helps show off these blooms by contrasting well with the lighter, pink flowers.

Returning to the subject of ‘forcing’ growth in the greenhouses, we have discovered records in the Archives at Minterne snippets telling of the Digby ancestors who grew melons, peaches, pears, nectarines, strawberries and gooseberries here. Definitely not fruits of the winter variety but nonetheless fascinating to know that the greenhouses here were once thriving with abundant produce.

Meanwhile we welcome the Robin, reminiscent of those Christmas Card images – This popular little bird heralds the arrival of spring which is just around the corner!

Christmas crackers are a traditional Christmas favorite in the UK. They were first made in about 1845-1850 by a London sweet maker called Tom Smith. He had seen the French Bonbon sweets (almonds wrapped in pretty paper). He came back to London and tried selling sweets like that in England and also included a small motto or riddle in with the sweet. But they didn’t sell very well.

However, one night, while he was sitting in front of his log fire, he became interested by the sparks and cracks coming from the fire. Suddenly, he thought what a fun idea it would be, if his sweets and toys could be opened with a crack when their fancy wrappers were pulled in half.

Crackers were originally called “cosaques” and were thought to be named after the Cossack soldiers who had a reputation for riding on their horses and firing guns into the air!

When Tom died, his expanding cracker business was taken over by his three sons, Tom, Walter and Henry. Walter introduced the hats into crackers and he also travelled around the world looking for new ideas for gifts to put in the crackers. The company built up a big range of themed crackers. There were ones for bachelors and spinsters, where the gifts were things like false teeth and wedding rings! There were also crackers for Suffragettes, war heroes and even Charlie Chaplain! Crackers were also made for special occasions like Coronations.

The British Royal Family still has special crackers made for them today!

Very expensive crackers were made such as the Millionaire’s Crackers which contained a solid silver box with a piece of gold and silver jewelry inside it!

Cracker manufacturers also made large displays, such as horse drawn carriages and sleighs, for the big shops in London.



December in the Gardens

All garden images courtesy of Mark Bobin

weddings at minterne
Gardens Open Daily
10am – 6pm    *    1st February to 8th November    *    Admission Price £6.00 (Children under 12 Free)
Season Tickets Available Here

Dogs welcome on leads    *    Parking is FREE for visitors in the car park opposite St Andrews Church    *    Minterne currently offers a selection of cream teas (weather permitting - please phone ahead to confirm)    *    Please note: Unfortunately, Minterne Gardens feature many uneven surfaces and are therefore NOT SUITABLE for wheelchairs    *    Minterne House itself is a private residence and therefore not open to the public without prior consent.


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“Minterne Gardens was a great recommendation and was a refreshing change from National Trust formality.”


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“Very interesting plants and trees, water features and a small tearoom for refreshments make for a lovely way to spend an afternoon”

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