The Magic of Christmas at Johnstown Castle

We asked Jess Sinnott, one of our current staff here at Johnstown Castle, Estate, Museum and Gardens, and the third generation of her family to work on the Estate, to share with us her unique and emotional experience of visiting Santa at Johnstown Castle dating back almost 20 years.

There are many aspects of Christmas that awaken that magical feeling within a person. When you’re an adult, it could be the first Christmas carol you hear, the first present you buy, or the first Christmas card you receive. As a child, it could start with the first mention of Santa, writing your letter, or going to visit him to ask for a list of new toys. For me, it was the latter. When I was a child, visiting Santa at Johnstown Castle was the beginning of all the Christmas magic. The Christmas party was a long-awaited event, and the days were always counted down as November came to a close. Sleeping the night before was impossible, and the day usually consisted of me anxiously waiting to get into the car and go. The car journey always felt like it was the longest trip of our lives, even though we only lived 40 minutes away, and when we finally got there my brother and I would run (always ignoring our mam telling us to slow down) up to the castle’s main entrance, getting frustrated at how slowly our parents walked. Walking through the main entrance of Johnstown Castle, our senses were immediately attacked; we were dazzled by the bright Christmas lights, the strong smell of mulled wine, and the harmonious sound of soothing mellow voices that drifted down the hallway, singing our favourite carols. The main hall was always decorated beautifully for the party, with a big Christmas tree that twinkled with hundreds of fairy lights. If you were five years old you’d believe it was the largest Christmas tree in the whole world, stretching up to heaven in a dazzling array of baubles and tinsel.

The strongest feeling I remember from visiting the castle at Christmas was the feeling of suspense. We would stand there as our parents mingled with the other adults, craning our necks back as far as they could go, searching the bannisters for any sign of Santa. We waited (never patiently), all the while feeling the intense butterflies of excitement grow. We waited and waited until finally, a white-glove would appear over the third-floor bannister, waving to the audience below, and we would scream. The glove would then disappear and we would begin scanning again, this time it was the second-floor landing, for the next brief star appearance; Rudolph. Just when we thought we would burst from excitement, out popped Rudolph’s head over the bannister (my Dad would later tell me that it was a stuffed deer head with a Lucozade bottle top glued onto its nose, with a man kneeling behind the bannister waving it around!). After the second round of screams died down, we waited for the final teaser. The first-floor landing was where Santa himself would pop his face over the bannister and wave to the crowd. Once he disappeared, we would nearly pass out with excitement, waiting for what was to come next. I always remember my brother would go red in the face from holding his breath; he looked like a shook can of coke ready to burst! After what felt like a lifetime, the doors would finally open, and Santa would walk out to ear-piercing screams of delight and children running as fast as they could to meet their hero.

One of my strongest memories of meeting Santa in Johnstown Castle was when I was about 4 or 5 years of age. My mam had invited her mother, father, and sister to join in the Christmas fun, and of course, I was excited that I could share my favourite day of the year with more family. After all the children hugged and met Santa, he did his usual rounds of greeting the adults, and what happened next is still talked about as the best Christmas memory for everyone in my family. Santa walked up to my maternal grandparents and auntie, and said, “Essie! Joe! And you must be…wait I remember, Margaret!”. Total. Astonishment. I couldn’t believe Santa remembered my grandparents’ names after so many years, and also remembered what he brought them on Christmas day. As they all stood around, chatting like old friends, I stood watching them with my mouth wide open. I never believed more in the magic of Santa than I did at that moment.

Every year the party was spellbinding. We waited for Santa, danced along to the band’s songs, ate enough sweets to rot our teeth, and got our present from Santa himself. We would all gather in what is now known as the Flag Room (where the grand staircase once was) and Santa would call out our names one by one. My heart would be in my mouth waiting for Santa to say my name, greedily watching the other kids rip open their gift. Once I heard my name I would run as fast as I could to get mine, bowling down anyone in my path. He would always do something funny, such as hold the present too high or hide it behind his back out of reach. It was never to tease as he was always the gentlest and kindest of people. After hours of fun, we would lazily walk back to the car clutching our new toys, with legs aching from the dancing and with a belly full of sweets, and doze happily as we drove home. I always cried at the end of the Christmas season because I never wanted it to end, but I always knew that if I waited very patiently the magic would soon start again at Johnstown.

A few years after his passing I learned it was my Grandad behind the red suit, and it had been his role to bring the magic of Christmas to children for nearly 30 years. I might be biased, but I can safely say he did just that.

Now nearly 23, I get to play a part in bringing that same joy to other children as my Grandad once did, albeit in a smaller role. I always enjoyed working at Johnstown Castle for many reasons, one being that I felt closer to Grandad, but I never knew how much I loved working here until I got involved in The Enchanted Christmas event. Of course, things are a little different; it’s a public experience opposed to the Christmas staff party for Teagasc that we attended for Santa, but one thing is for sure, the magic is still there. The decorations, the lights, the music, and the atmosphere are the same as they once were, and one thing that will never change is the look of sheer excitement on everybody’s face. I love that as a third-generation employee of Johnstown Castle and the Irish Heritage Trust, I get to experience the same excitement and magic all over again. The children come running through the door, ignoring their mam telling them to slow down, too eager to meet Father Christmas and tell him how good they had been all year. Checking families in, I see their faces light up as I ask the same question; ‘are you excited to see him?’, and the answer always being a very, very, profound ‘yes!’.

After I asked a little girl if she had fun, she responded breathlessly, ‘it was just magical’. I got very emotional after the first day of doing this event, as it reminded me of how wonderful this time of year is, no matter what age you are. Receiving such positive feedback from every family that had their experience brings indescribable joy, with the biggest comment on how personal the experience was. Every family get their own time; there is no queues, no rushing, and no corners cut; the wonderment and atmosphere will make you believe in the magic all over again. All the staff are dedicated to giving a personal and magical moment for every family that walks through the door, and I know my Santa would be very proud at the level of enchantment we have reached at our castle. If you can be reminded of one thing this season, it’s that no matter how old you are, you are never too old to believe in the magic of Christmas.

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