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How Winterthur Is Transformed Into a Holiday Wonderland

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Twenty-two of the 175 rooms at Winterthur Museum, the former home of famous collector Henry Francis du Pont, are decorated in period-perfect dress for Yuletide at Winterthur, an annual celebration that transforms the estate into a winter wonderland—and that does not happen overnight.

Flowers for the magnificent dried-flower tree, for example, are harvested as early as the spring. “We use over 50 different varieties of flowers now,” says Debbie Harper, senior curator of education.“A few come from the property, and people even donate some, like hydrangeas.” The flowers are dried using silica gel, then wrapped in small bunches and hung in a dry location for weeks.

Harper has been in charge of Yuletide almost 20 years. She oversees about 90 people who help decorate the rooms and gardens, which begins in late October every year. “There is, of course, a lot more behind-the-scenes help,” she says. “There are about a dozen staff who helped prepare display elements who will not be on the floor decorating. There were also about 12 adult volunteers from our Crafternoon program, six teen volunteers, 40 children from the Salvation Army Summer Camp program and about 110 kids who participated in Winterthur’s summer Terrific Tuesdays program who made faux Christmas cookies for one of the displays.”

Then there are the 10 people dedicated to the flowers. Because the flowers are bunched, decorating the famous 15-foot Douglas fir doesn’t take more than a few hours. It’s the hanging of lights that takes so much time. Luckily, Harper says, those who hang the strings are patient with those on the floor and their demands to move the lights one way or the other.

This year’s “Treasures of Holidays Past” celebrates collections of items such as Christmas cards, candy dishes, cookie cutters and more. Guests will also tour the court, which displays holiday lighting from the 18th century through the Victorian era. But, says Harper, “This job is a treasure in itself.”