These Iconic Brandywine Valley Holiday Displays Carry on With Tradition

Longwood Gardens “lights” up the night with stunning displays./Courtesy Greater Wilmington Convention & Visitors Bureau
Words by Lora Bilton Englehart

Even amid the pandemic, Winterthur, the Brandywine River Museum, Hagley and Longwood Gardens are bringing the magic with their iconic holiday experiences.

Don’t you wish you could close your eyes, click your heels and whisper, “There’s no place like home, there’s no place like home” and return to life before the coronavirus? The holidays are steeped in tradition, from bespoke family celebrations to institutional events at local museums that we look forward to every year. This season, the wizards behind the curtains have worked their magic to provide safe, unique and memorable holiday experiences. Expressing enthusiasm, Mark Nardone, communications manager at Winterthur Museum, Garden and Library says, “It will be a very different, livelier Yuletide going forward despite COVID-19 constraints, and definitely a bright spot in the year.”

From elaborately decked out parlors to the Enchanted Woods and 3D light shows, the holiday experience is nothing short of magical at Winterthur Museum, Garden and Library./Courtesy Greater Wilmington Convention & Visitors Bureau

Yuletide at Winterthur

Winterthur Museum, Garden and Library

“Henry Francis Du Pont owned several houses, but Winterthur was always ‘home,’” says Deborah Harper, senior curator of education. Through Jan. 3, Yuletide House Tours welcomes visitors to tour the fifth floor of the Du Pont family’s elegant country estate, decked out in custom Christmas décor designed by talented artisans.

Outdoors, arboreal displays include a Victorian tree like one the family might have enjoyed in the 1890s, as well as a large tree ablaze with “newfangled lights,” reminiscent of the 1930s. In the Conservatory, a magnificent Dried Flower Tree surrounded by luscious blooms is a longtime favorite of visitors.

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During Yuletide in Lights (Dec. 1–12), see an awe-inspiring holographic 3-D light show on the mansion’s façade, accompanied by music. The three-minute display, which repeats every 15 minutes, depicts Du Pont family members preparing for a glamorous party in their stunning 175-room home. Mr. and Mrs. Du Pont, their daughters and servants are seen bustling up and down the stairs readying the house for their guests and then greeting them as they arrive.

On two Fridays this month (Dec. 4 and 11), kids age 12 and under who wear their PJs can discover Yuletide—plus the light show and house tour—for free. They can also get their craft on Sunday afternoons through Jan. 3 when Winterthur hosts a Kids Create! event in three separate locations on the property. Speaking of creativity, on Dec. 6,  the Santa Tram will shuttle families to the Enchanted Woods, where they can say hello to Mrs. Claus, sip hot chocolate, nibble on sweet holiday treats and warm up with a gusty singalong.

As was Du Pont tradition, wrap up the holiday season with New Year’s Day Calling on Friday, Jan. 1, 2021. Exchange greetings and best wishes for the new year while enjoying hot chocolate and cookies, and even take home a complimentary paperwhite. Reflect on the magical, Technicolor, Oz-like sites you have experienced while you eased on down the imaginary “yellow brick road” this holiday season, and keep Christmas with you all through next year.

At the Brandywine River Museum, kids big and small go wild for “critter” ornaments and O-gauge trains (above) chugging through charming towns and farmlands./Courtesy of the Brandywine River Museum of Art

Holiday Magic

Brandywine River Museum of Art

When you approach the Brandywine River Museum of Art and see the 18-foot wreath glowing against the brick façade, you know you are home. Once inside, find the familiar display of Andy Wyeth’s sister Ann’s dollhouse, half a dozen rooms filled with three dozen dolls and hundreds of miniature objects. Also admire live trees decked out with “Critter” ornaments (on Dec. 5–6, purchase your own at the annual Critter Sale) crafted by volunteers throughout the year, as well as the popular tree that soars three levels high through the atrium.

What’s the holiday season without model trains? The gallery has had a train running since the museum’s first Christmas in 1972. The 2,000-foot track and O-gauge trains typically draw mobs of excited fans as the trains pass through towns, farms, a carnival and drive-in movie theater. This year, new controls are in place to ensure a safe and pleasant experience. Last year, Nicholas Wyeth’s standard-gauge model train set was on view, and this year, Jamie Wyeth donated his N-gauge train layout.

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Hagley Museum celebrates the magic of the season with creative workshops for children featuring Mr. and Mrs. Claus, as well as its annual gingerbread house contest. This year’s competition honors those serving on the front lines during the COVID-19 pandemic./Courtesy Greater Wilmington Convention & Visitors Bureau

Holidays at Hagley

Hagley Museum

The central event at Hagley Museum is the third-annual Gingerbread House Contest. This year’s theme is Hometown Heroes, honoring those serving on the front lines during the current pandemic. See the creative structures on display in the Millwright Shop throughout the season. (Interested in entering the contest? Visit the website for details.)

Beginning Dec. 4, Santa’s Workshop Selfie Station in the Wheelwright Shop invites children to pose—for a selfie, of course—with Mr. and Mrs. Claus, as well as create wooden gear ornaments to be completed on-site or at home. The following day, kids attending a Santa Day Celebration can enjoy a cozy visit with the Clauses, take pictures and pen their wish lists for Santa. Elves will be on hand to give individually wrapped cookies to good little girls and boys.

Courtesy Greater Wilmington Convention & Visitors Bureau

A Longwood Christmas

Longwood Gardens

Through Jan. 10, Kennett Square’s famous gardens will be aglow with more than 500,000 lights strung throughout the lavish gardens. Dancing lights will simulate fountain jets, and the towering firs by the lake will create the backdrop for an illuminated light show set to holiday music classics. The Meadow Garden will feature a 140-foot tunnel of light and a grove of color-changing orbs pulsating to the rhythms of holiday favorites.

Inside the Exhibition Hall, 20-foot cut Fraser firs, a bounty of seasonal plants and fountains intertwined with poinsettia “ribbons” are bound to take your breath away. In the Music Room, the scene is set for Christmas morning with an 18-foot rotating tree, ornately decorated packages and stockings hung by the chimney stuffed to the brim. In the East Conservatory, dream of a white Christmas amid the wintry palette.

Adventure to the Wildlife Tree, bedecked with hundreds of handmade and edible ornaments for furry and feathered creatures, and the 25-foot Gardener’s Tree, decorated with sugar cones and gourds. In the Open-Air Theatre, fountains will dance day and night to holiday classics, weather permitting. While strolling through the outdoor gardens, warm your hands and hearts at one of three fire pits created by local craftsmen.

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And what says holiday magic better than an elaborate train set? Returning for the 20th year is the Garden Railway, a sprawling 500-foot track adjacent to the beer garden where 31 locomotives and cars—including the beloved Thomas and Percy—move around lush vegetation and replicas of some of the area’s most iconic historic structures.

Published as “Homes for the Holidays” in the December 2020 issue of Delaware Today.

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