You’re driving down Baltimore Pike near Kennett on a late autumn’s eve when the colored lights come into view. As you get nearer, they grow larger and clearer until you know they can be only one thing: the beautifully illuminated trees at the entrance of Longwood Gardens.
It’s no Christmas miracle. The display of nearly 100 trees and 500,000 lights is the work of six arborists who, with the aid of technical climbing gear, spend the weeks between Labor Day and Thanksgiving climbing trees and hanging lights. They work 1,900 man hours stringing 1,500 25-foot commercial-grade strands of 50 lights throughout the gardens. Smaller trees can be finished in a day by a single worker, but it takes all six arborists almost two days to string each of five large copper beeches with 250 to 300 strands.
“It is a real team effort,” says chief arborist Tyler Altenburger, who coordinates the work.
The display wasn’t always so grand. The first lighting, in 1962, included only three evergreens in the parking lot of the visitors center. Over the next 20 years, thousands of bulbs were added. In 1985, the display moved into the gardens proper to separate wide-eyed visitors and crawling cars. And it continued to grow. The strings of vivid, energy-efficient LED lights now total 31 miles end to end.
Longwood Gardens hosts nearly 1.4 million guests a year, but A Longwood Christmas alone—Thanksgiving to early January—sees 400,000 visitors. Altenburger will be among them. Though he and his wife live on the property—and though he has spent weeks at work on the trees—he still enjoys strolling through Longwood with his friends.
“My favorite thing is hearing people say things like, ‘Wow, how’d they do that?’ or ‘That must have taken hours,’” Altenburger says. “People really do appreciate what we do.”
There is more to A Longwood Christmas than lights. The Versailles-like conservatory features 50 cut trees stunningly trimmed and, this year, a mosaic of floating cranberries, apples and gilded walnuts in the style of a parterre garden. There are sing-alongs with organ music inside the former home of founder Pierre S. du Pont. Outside, newly refurbished fountains will dance to holiday music and carolers will stroll among all those spectacular lights.
And Altenburger will take it all in with a great sense of satisfaction. “It really is very rewarding,” he says.
A Longwood Christmas runs through Jan. 7, 2018.