Noningsby is a country estate near Orley Farm. It is the home of Judge and Lady Staveley, their son Augustus and daughter Madeline. Joining them for Christmas is their elder married daughter with her children, as well the London attorney Mr. Furnival and his daughter (the non-heroine) Sophia, Lucius Mason from Orley Farm and Peregrine Orme. Rounding out the party is a friend of Augustus, Felix Graham, an attorney who prefers to support himself by writing for the papers, and who has some rather unorthodox opinions.
I wonder if Felix is speaking for the author when he tells Madeline Staveley, on the way to church Christmas morning, "I cannot help thinking that this Christmas-day of ours is a great mistake." Of course she protests, and he goes on to say, "That part...which is made to be in any degree sacred is by no means a mistake." But, he continues, "I believe that the ceremony, as kept by us, is perpetuated by the butchers and beersellers, with a helping hand from the grocers. It is essentially a material festival; and I would not object to it even on that account if it were not so grievously overdone." He doesn't mention other kinds of shopping, the emphasis on presents (which play no part in the chapter).
The conversation between them ends with their arrival at the church, and here Trollope surprised me with his warmth:
I do not know of anything more pleasant to the eye than a pretty country church, decorated for Christmas-day. The effect in a city is altogether different. I will not say that churches there should not be decorated, but comparatively it is a matter of indifference. No one knows who does it. The peculiar munificence of the squire who has sacrificed his holly bushes is not appreciated. The work of the fingers that have been employed is not recognized. The efforts made for hanging the pendant wreaths to each capital have been of no special interest to any large number of the worshippers. It has been done by contract, probably, and even if well done has none of the grace of association. But here at Noningsby church, the winter flowers had been cut by Madeline and the gardener, and the red berries had been grouped by her own hands. She and the vicar's wife had stood together with perilous audacity on top of the clerk's desk while they fixed the branches beneath the cushion of the old-fashioned turret, from which the sermons were preached. And all of this had of course been talked about at the house; and some of the party had gone over to see, including Sophia Furnival, who had declared that nothing could be so delightful, though she had omitted to endanger her fingers by any participation in the work. And the children had regarded the operation as a triumph of all that was wonderful in decoration; and thus many of them had been made happy.Later it is Madeline who leads off the first round of blindman's bluff, the final round of which draws in the staid Judge Staveley. Snap-dragon comes next. "To the game of snap-dragon, as played at Noningsby, a ghost was always necessary, and aunt Madeline had played the ghost ever since she had been an aunt..." This year her brother suggests that Sophia would make a lovely ghost, and for the first time, there are two carrying "two large dishes of raisins, and two blue fires blazing up from burnt brandy." Some members of the party think "Aunt Mad." makes the prettiest ghost, while others have eyes only for Sophia.
This makes for lovely reading on Christmas Eve. However, the chapter before is a troubling one, set at the Furnival home in London. Mrs. Furnival, who has not been invited to Noningsby, spends Christmas alone. And the chapter that follows is set at Groby Park, where I am sure that the only feasting will be done in private by the miserly Mrs. Mason.
Merry Christmas from Houston!