trees with green Christmas lights and hanging lights overhead

The Spirit of A Longwood Christmas

By Lynn Schuessler, on

A little boy dashes from the Visitor Center into the brightly quiet wonder of A Longwood Christmas. His eyes, wide as the night, reflect the glow of the big old elm, tall as the sky and brilliant with light, perhaps borrowed from the stars above.

“How do they do all of this?” he exclaims.

American elm tree with Christmas lights

The spirit of A Longwood Christmas lives on in the branches of this American elm, planted near the Cow Lot in the early 1930s. Photo by Hank Davis, 2015.

His question touches the heart of a long-ago teen, who remembers the magic of nights like this, when he and his parents would drive to Longwood and join the line of cars cruising the parking lot. From 1962 through 1984, this area outside the Visitor Center played host to “Christmas Tree Lane,” where more and more trees were decked with more and more lights each year, until the busyness of traffic moved the traditional lighting of trees inside Longwood grounds.

“It was quite something back then, although today it wouldn't seem nearly as spectacular,” says a longtime Gardens employee. In memory, Christmas Tree Lane will always remain spectacular, a spirit wrapped in youthful wonder.

red lit Christmas tree with 4 lit trees behind

Christmas Tree Lane, 1971. From the Longwood Gardens Archives.

A Longwood Christmas inspires not only the young. An older woman in hospice, bundled up in a wheelchair and accompanied by her two daughters, arrives for a visit to this place she loves. It is one of her last wishes, and so the visit becomes a flower in the garden of memories now tended by her children—and by the staff member who witnessed the occasion.

A December breeze catches the branches and makes the lights twinkle even more brightly. Or could it be the spirit of Christmas at Longwood—the unseen essence that animates the place and its people? It is a spirit made strong by the grace and generosity of Longwood's founder, Pierre S. du Pont (1870-1954), and his wife, Alice Belin du Pont (1872-1944).

After receiving an inheritance at age 23, Pierre remarked that “The knowledge of how to give and the calls for so doing were to me as yet an unknown field of opportunity.” It was knowledge in which he would become well-versed, as he donated millions of dollars for area hospitals, schools, and roads. At Christmas, the opportunity for giving was transformed into both celebration and tradition.

black and white image of a Christmas tree and two people

Pierre S. and Alice B. du Pont overseeing preparations for a Christmas party in the Longwood Conservatory, mid to late 1920s. From the Longwood Gardens Archives.

From 1921 to 1942, the du Ponts welcomed the families of Longwood employees to the Conservatory for festivities that included entertainment, refreshments, and generous gifts of food, money, clothing, and toys. The children especially looked forward to the Christmas tree on the sunken floor of the Exhibition Hall, whose bottom branches were decorated with treats they'd shake into bags and take home. The tradition continues to this day at the annual Longwood Family Christmas Party when Santa visits and brings gifts to the children of Longwood employees.

In Colvin Randall's Longwood Gardens Christmas (2010), Ike Evans recalls such parties from his childhood and the spirit of “The du Pont Touch” that brought them to life. He believes the reason for the parties was “love, a great outpouring of it.” He hopes that “we Longwood folk were worthy of such a gift.”

Then, as well as now, it was not only the young who looked forward to Christmas at Longwood. From 1923 to 1935, Mr. and Mrs. du Pont invited “Old Folks” from the area to a party in the Conservatory, where they enjoyed the Christmas tree, afternoon tea, a concert by Longwood's first organist, Firmin Swinnen, and a tropical taste of summer in the winter of their lives. One 1924 newspaper reported, “It was as if the ghosts of Christmas past were reveling amid the joys of Christmas present.”

Throughout his lifetime, Pierre S. du Pont's spirit of giving remained strong. But perhaps his greatest gift was the gift of Longwood Gardens. His careful planning ensured that the spirit of Christmas at Longwood would last all year through and indeed, down through the years. In 1957, Longwood Gardens first opened its Christmas celebration to the public, and today we welcome thousands of guests every holiday season. Year after year, the inspired displays once more call forth the question: “How do they do all of this?”

How we do all of that, of course, is the amazing unseen magic of A Longwood Christmas. Part of the “magic” lies in countless hours of planning and production that begin more than a year in advance. Moreover, it's “The du Pont touch” that is still so much the spirit of this place. It's the ghosts of Christmases past that have taught and inspired the gardeners, carpenters, metal workers, painters, stone masons, electricians, and plumbers of Christmas present.

many people removing indoor chrysanthemum plants

From Chrysanthemums to Christmas, 2015. Transition between the seasons and the orchestration of many hands at work. Photo by Nancy Bowley.

One staff member puts it this way: “What makes Longwood so special is the people here … Despite the marathon of long hours spent installing the Christmas display, our staff members work so beautifully together, supporting and helping each other. Christmas is often all about family, and our Longwood family is a very special one …

“The talented gardener who led the team that designed and installed the Music Room display is the same person who carefully spreads mulch outside on the rainiest day … The humbleness of our creative staff is amazing, as well as their dedication to making sure every detail is attended to so our guests have a magical visit.”

A Longwood tour guide adds her own behind-the-scenes glimpse: “I think it is the quiet teamwork that happens during changeover (between Chrysanthemum Festival and A Longwood Christmas) that says the most about the spirit here. Seeing Archives and Library folks participating in tree decorating (with hard hats!) and how their Horticulture team leader encourages them and supports them as they do the very detailed hands-on work is inspiring.”

The spirit of A Longwood Christmas takes as many shapes as there are moments in the season. But even its simplest expression brightens the day of one Manager, as she overhears a guest's cheerful words on her way to the Conservatory: “This place always makes me smile!”

“This is the reaction we want from guests when they visit Longwood Gardens,” says the Manager, “and I am sure Pierre S. du Pont's intention when he opened up his home to the public was to make people smile.”

Through a grateful smile and the wondering eyes of a child, through gardens of treasured memories, and through the heritage of a place and its people, the spirit of A Longwood Christmas lives on. This holiday season, embrace the gift of Longwood Gardens—and help carry it into all the Christmases of the future.

red berry plants in pots with decorated Christmas trees

Join us for A Longwood Christmas, on view through January 10, 2016. Photo by Hank Davis.

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