November 28, 2000 12:00 PM

Paul Burrell, former butler to Diana, Princess of Wales (she called him “my rock”), may be the ultimate authority on observing a classic British holiday. After all, Burrell, 42, who began his career as a footman at Buckingham Palace, spent more than two decades watching the royals do it. (His book on etiquette and entertaining, In the Royal Manner, was published last year by Warner Books.) Over the years, he has incorporated some of those traditions into his own celebrations with his wife, Maria, 46, and their sons Alexander, 15, and Nicholas, 12 (and Belle, their West Highland white terrier), in their three-story Georgian home about 180 miles northwest of London. What makes their holidays so special, though, is that Burrell and Maria (who was a maid to the Princess) continue to create new traditions of their own.

I love Christmas: It’s my favorite time of the year. At our house, everyone gets in on the preparations. The first weekend of December, the whole family heads to nearby Delamere Forest to chop down a spruce or pine. There’s usually some disagreement over the “perfect” tree: The boys always want a full, fat one, but I prefer a tall, thin one. As a former butler at Kensington Palace, I am in charge of the house, so I usually win these arguments—but in the end everyone’s happy. “From the moment you get the tree, Christmas begins,” says my son Alexander.

I’m also in charge of decorating the tree: I do it up with red, green, silver and gold ornaments. I’ve started stringing silver beads around the tree, just as I used to do at Kensington Palace. The beads give it a traditional Victorian look as they reflect the light, making the tree seem magical.

On Christmas Eve, to be sure we have plenty of time to spend with our guests the next day—usually my mother-in-law and several close family members—we’ll all pitch in peeling potatoes, cutting vegetables, preparing the mushy peas, a delicious throwback to my northern heritage (peas are soaked overnight in a net in bicarbonate of soda, then cooked). I also make the trifle so that it can stand in the fridge overnight. (The longer, the better—especially if you soak the bottom in sherry.) Maria admits I’m the better cook, “but then again,” she says, “you’ve had the training.”

After we all attend Midnight Mass across the road at St. Chad’s Catholic Church, the boys head off to bed. (“When we shared a room, we would have arguments about who was going to ask Mum if we could get up and open our presents,” says Nicholas.) Then Maria and I prepare their stockings. We make sure they’re slightly different (to avoid quarrels), but both are crammed with things like CDs and videos and pen and pencil cases. In the toe of each, though, we always place an apple, an orange, a handful of nuts and a few chocolate coins—exactly what I would get in my Christmas stocking as a boy.

I used to wrap all the Princess’s presents—about 200 of them—so naturally I do most of the wrapping in our house. Afterward we put all the gifts under the tree and try to get some much-needed rest because we know we’ll be up early.

At 7 a.m. sharp, the boys start opening their stockings while Maria and I enjoy a glass of Buck’s Fizz [champagne with freshly squeezed orange juice]. Replacing our morning coffee with champagne dates from our Palace days: When we were single, we always worked on Christmas, so a glass of Buck’s Fizz was our treat.

Soon after the boys are finished opening their presents, people start arriving. As we bustle about in the kitchen, guests come and go, dipping a mug into the mulled wine we always have simmering on the stove—it’s very Christmassy.

Everything about Christmas lunch takes me back to my childhood in Derbyshire, in northern England. My mother, Beryl, who died five years ago, cooked for all of us—my father, my two brothers and me—in a tiny kitchen, just about 6′ x 4′. Still, she always managed to turn out a great lunch, even making up extra plates for some elderly neighbors who weren’t able to cook for themselves.

Finally, around 2 o’clock, we’re ready to sit down to eat. After all the preparation, it seems lunch is over so quickly, but by 3 o’clock, it has to be—that’s when the Queen comes on the telly to deliver her Christmas Day address. Watching her, Maria and I feel great pride and are honored to have served her family.

After the massive cleanup—everyone helps out—and a few hours of relaxation, watching TV or playing games, we manage to think of food again. Some of us might have a slice of Christmas cake with a cup of tea. But after a full day of eating and drinking and making merry, bed seems most tempting.

Happily, the next day is Boxing Day, a day of recuperation. Traditionally, the holiday traces its origins to the practice of opening churches’ alms boxes and distributing the money to the poor of the parish. But these days I like to take the boys to see a football [soccer] match or go for a walk with the dog, while Maria takes it easy.

Spending time with family and friends—and showing them how much they mean to us—is what I love most about Christmas. And with each passing year, we create wonderful new memories that will last for the rest of our lives.

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