“We go crazy for Christmas in Ireland. Some people don’t like Christmas. Me, it’s my favorite holiday. People say my birthday, Christmas, Easter, Thanksgiving. For me, it’s Christmas. It’s always been Christmas,” says Carton House (a Fairmont property) general manager Martin Mangan, in a manner one can only describe as jolly. He and his staff at the Irish estate-turned-hotel have the perfect setting for the holiday season: a grand manor nestled in the idyllic countryside of Ireland’s County Kildare. “Christmas day obviously is the only day of the year that everything closes in Ireland. Hotels, we don’t close.”
“I suppose we start [preparing] as soon as Christmas is over,” Mangan continues. As soon as the holiday trees come down, he’s sitting down with his staff asking questions about what worked and what didn’t. They’re taking everything into account from their occupancy levels to the decor themes. “It’s a year of planning,” he assures me. And once spooky season ends with the close of October, that decor goes right back up again.
The whole space is alight with a glow, effortlessly manufactured by event and decor extraordinaire Sarah Baxter of SBD Events, Carton House’s holiday pinch hitter. Their theme? Less is more. “Lots of nice subtle colors with various textures so spaces are welcoming for guests to soak up the festive spirit,” she fills me in. “This place looks like Christmas year round,” Mangan laughs. “It’s a very old historic monument,” says Mangan. “So if you were to do something too contemporary I think it would jar what we have here.”
“The existing design is paramount when it comes to choosing decorations,” Baxter reiterates. The house itself possesses a palette of rich yet natural hues that subtly morph from room to room. The decor, therefore, follows suit. One tree hosts poinsettias, cranberry garland, pinecones, and red ornaments. Another wreath exhibits glittering foliage, deers’ heads, and a subtle yet punch-packing leopard-print bauble—it’s a neutral, right?
“In the gold salon,” Baxter explains, “the Christmas tree decor tones are gold and champagne for an added sense of richness and luxury, a tasteful contrast to the calmer, natural tones we used elsewhere in the hotel.” In the Morrison dining room, a slew of garland peppered with silver baubles, plush locally supplied ribbon, and metallic faux foliage directs your attention to the intricately carved marble mantle. The granite-like marbling of the carpet inspired a choice of dappled feathers. The baroque metallics translated to a glittery dusting upon the garland.
Carton House was originally the home of the FitzGeralds, a powerful family who presided over the estate and surrounding townlands for centuries. Some semblance of this house in particular has stood since the 16th century. Now, the grand manor’s castle-like architecture rivals your wildest Bridgerton fantasy and presides over 1,100 acres. Its interior was restored rather than revamped to preserve its charm. Today, walls of shelving and leather tufted club chairs lend a note of masculinity to the whiskey library while baroque molding does just the opposite in the formal dining room.
As the menu of on-site restaurant Kathleen’s Kitchen shifts to embrace winter’s wonder (think: turkeys and cranberry sauce, mulled wine, and hot whiskey), the decor follows suit. “We used stags’ heads, berries, and pheasant feathers when decorating trees and garlands, complementing the existing soft furnishings to create a homey working kitchen with an outdoorsy feel.” (One of this year’s main goals is to pull from local suppliers and use items they can find on-property.)
Baxter and her team at SBD Events boast a resume that encompasses everything from decorating other estates for the holidays to festively revamping the Queen’s Arcade, Belfast’s luxury shopping center. Each year’s inspiration comes from a series of holiday stops that begins with the Frankfurt Christmas Market and ends in London’s festive metropolis. Then, they’re using their trusted network of suppliers to invigorate rather than transform the space. At Carton House, they began planning what the holidays would look like via chats with the initial interior designer during the renovation in 2017.
“The planning and placement of our decorations must enhance the hotel during the festive period, but not inhibit the work of the hotel and its staff,” says Baxter of the holiday frenzy. “We think carefully about the busy areas where guests flow through. This is where you want to create a real impact.” One major request did come from Mangan in that he and his team wanted a really, really big tree. And they got it. A multi-story pine structure looms regally outside the front entrance. (It’s the biggest they’ve ever done.) “We had a team of engineers literally come in with machinery to put this thing up,” Mangan woefully reflects, “it took a couple of days.” Within the doors, over 30 feature trees perch around the space (not counting those in the guests’ suites), each of which boasts unique dressings.
Lighting is also paramount. “The place [itself] is lit up like a Christmas tree,” says the general manager. “Our boathouse is lit up, our tower is lit up, the manor house is lit up.” Rather than string runway lights along the roof, the exterior is lit up with spotlights from below. Outside, they deck carriage houses with festoon lights. And, Baxter assures me, “always soft warm fairy lights” within.
“It’s all about evoking the senses. When you think about a holiday spent with your family, it’s certain things that evoke that memory,” Mangan recounts. It might be a smell. The scent they use year-round is one Fairmont developed with Le Labo dubbed “Rose 31,” a scent of rose infused with cumin, cedar, and amber notes (similar here). Or it might be a taste. “We’re not big into eggnog here but Irish coffee, hot whiskeys, mulled wine, spiced cider. It’s anything to kind of warm the soul, warm the hands,” he says. The kitchen is baking Christmas puddings, making a chutney, and baking Guinness bread. The aforementioned Duchess was renowned for her high tea celebrations, and now Carton House offers a festive tea so guests can enjoy a jolly pastry—a play on traditions with a sprinkle of modern merchandising.
More and more, Mangan and his staff have noticed an uptick in hotel stays for Christmas, whether that’s domestic or overseas travel. “When you leave you don’t remember the color of the wallpaper, you don’t remember the carpet. What you remember is your experience,” he muses. “I think Christmas is probably the most powerful experience and if you can create a wonderful experience around Christmas you’ve got a guest for life, right?”
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