A towering tree laden with flowers forms the centrepiece of a magical family Christmas in this century-old hall-turned-home
At this time of year, that cheery Christmas carol Deck the Halls takes on a literal significance at Jess Britten and Warren Durling’s Auckland home. They’ve been converting an old hall in Ponsonby into their family home for the past three years. But where simplicity and minimalism normally reign, festive frivolity takes over from 1 December.
“I’m all about the bells and whistles. It’s ridiculous, but it’s so much fun,” says Jess, who is the daughter of the late legendary engineer and motorcycle designer John Britten.
“It’s a time when you get to do all the things that may feel a bit frilly and excessive the rest of the year,” she says. “You can cook all those beautiful meals you’ve had on your list, drink the wine, decorate your house and fill it with loved ones… Sounds like the perfect holiday to me.”
Birds of a feather
“The more the merrier” has always been the motto at Britten family Christmases. Extended family, travellers and anyone without their own celebrations to go to were always welcome additions to the table.
These days, big family Christmases are still the norm, with two turkeys and a ham always on the menu. Why two turkeys, you might ask? Because of the Britten Turkey-Off, of course; a Christmas turkey-cooking competition between Jess’ mum, Kirsteen Britten, and her sister, Carolyn Reid.
“Every year they each cook a turkey and the family chooses whose is best in a blind taste test,” explains Jess. “They pretend it’s fun and games, but I’m sure there’s underlying sibling rivalry at its heart. Luckily we have a big family, so the turkeys always get demolished.”
The first year Jess and Warren hosted Christmas in their hall home, in 2016, Warren threw his hat into the turkey-off ring. His months of research and preparation paid off with both the original cook-off queens giving his effort their tick of approval. But the contest almost resulted in turkey fatigue. “We were having turkey dinners once a week for about six weeks!” says Jess.
Winner takes it hall
Both sides of the family came together for that first Christmas in the hall. Space was never going to be an issue in the huge (and at that time, empty) old dame, and Jess and Warren were well-equipped for the big family affair with trestle tables and 40 old chairs left behind by the Royal Antediluvian Order of Buffaloes (previous owners of the hall).
Surrounded by original detailing from the turn of the last century, the family sat in banquet style and filled the 112-year-old building with laughter and conversation. “It felt really surreal to have everyone there,” says Jess.
Food, family and a small tipple: it’s the perfect recipe for lively discussion, Jess reckons. “I thrive off that dynamic when you have people with opinions at the table who aren’t afraid of polite debate!”
A bit of friendly competition is also welcome at Jess and Warren’s Christmases. All forms of games are encouraged and highly anticipated. “I love silly games. Lawn games, board games, card games… I’m all over it,” says Jess. “Poor Warren. He and his brothers aren’t into games at all, but luckily I have a sister-in-law who is just as into games as I am.”
That first Christmas was also when Jess realised that everything inside the old hall needed to be scaled up. Their six-foot-tall pine tree barely made an impression beneath the soaring 18-foot-high ceiling.
Jess’ Christmas style is an extension of her interior style: traditional with a contemporary twist. “I like to go with a bit of both because I think that’s reflected in the hall itself,” she says. “It has a traditional foundation as well as some contemporary injections.”
She’s also not opposed to something a little bit out of the ordinary. “I quite like strange things,” Jess says, recalling a photo of an upside-down Christmas tree hanging from the ceiling that she saw online. It was (only for a second) considered as an option; “we have a hall, so it would be kind of rude not to do something ridiculous at some point,” she says.
“Warren very kindly tolerates my festive enthusiasm for all of December and then has 11 months to get over it.”
The Most Wonderful Time
Christmas time is filled with fond memories for Jess. “I feel very fortunate to have a family that really loves to congregate and celebrate each other’s company, so I have many memories of Christmas that echo what I would like to create with our family in the future.
“I now have a greater appreciation of the magic that was there for me as a kid,” says Jess, who was the nominated Christmas wrapper in her family. “Mum would give me everyone’s piles to wrap the night before Christmas and make me feel all important. I got the inside scoop on what everyone was getting!”
This year, Jess, Warren and their 1-year-old daughter, Stevie, will be heading off to Warren’s brother’s home for a classic Kiwi backyard Christmas. Until then, Jess has several weeks to blast carols from the old record player (Michael Bublé, Bing Crosby and Mariah Carey being just some of her favourites in the mix), deck the hall in decorations and indulge in all the Christmas treats.
After all, as Jess says, Christmas is a time for “all the things we love – but in excess”.
Words by: Bea Taylor. Styling by: Sam van Kan. Photography by: Belinda Merrie.