The conservatory at Longwood Garden with planted poinsettias around the garden beds.

Longwood Christmas Past

By Colvin Randall, on

As we look forward to a very retro experience with this year’s A Longwood Christmas display, it’s fun to look back to see how Longwood’s holiday display crystalized from a simple celebration in the 1920s, to the first full-fledged display in the 1950s, to the holiday extravaganza of today. Follow along as we take a look at some notable A Longwood Christmas indoor and Conservatory displays throughout the decades, from new features to display milestones … and leading up to this year’s spectacular display.

Longwood in the early years was virtually deserted in December. Founders Pierre and Alice du Pont welcomed employees to the Peirce-du Pont House conservatory for a simple celebration in the late teens. A month after the new Main Conservatory opened in 1921, they started a new tradition known as The Christmas Tree with a massive celebration in the Exhibition Hall for employee children. A huge tree was loaded with small toys and trinkets, plus stand-alone gifts and children’s entertainment. It was the highlight of the entire year for those lucky youngsters and up to 800 guests, and it continued through 1942. It was augmented by welcoming as many as 350 shut-in seniors from Wilmington, DE, for a delightful afternoon around the tree from 1923 through 1935.

A black and white image of the Fern Floor during the holiday display at Longwood Gardens.

This view overlooks the party preparations in the Exhibition Hall in the mid to late 1920s; the gentleman is likely Pierre S. du Pont.

A black and white image of the bottom of a decorated Christmas tree.

In the 1920s, Longwood’s Exhibition Hall trees featured lower branches hung with toys and trinkets for the kids to grab when given the signal during The Christmas Tree gathering.

Wartime shortages and Alice du Pont’s passing in 1944 curtailed the celebrations, although Pierre continued to distribute food and cash gifts to employees. With Pierre’s passing in 1954, the new management decided to devote one more growing house to poinsettias for 1956, to greatly augment the traditional display of holiday red, previously only in the Fern Passage.

Two images paired with poinsettias on display at Longwood Gardens.

Pierre and Alice displayed poinsettias mostly in the Fern Passage. In 1956, poinsettias were also displayed in the Rose House.

In 1957, the first full-fledged Christmas display filled the Orangery and Exhibition Hall with holiday cheer. Red, white, and pink poinsettias were used along the center walk for the first time, flanked by white lilies, paper-whites, hyacinths, and more. A new “Christmas star” was hung high in the Exhibition Hall so as to be visible from the front door and recorded background holiday music filled the air in the Conservatory.

A vintage photo of the Longwood Gardens conservatory at Christmas time.

Christmas in 1957 was the first big holiday display mounted since Pierre and Alice’s last Christmas Tree celebration in 1942.

Over the years, Longwood staff exercised their creativity to ensure over-the-top displays year after year in the Conservatory. In 1960, two large globes of evergreens with red balls floated above a large lighted tree on the Exhibition Hall stage, while bell-shaped ivy baskets, winter-flowering begonia, lilies, cinerarias, kumquats, lemons, oranges, and grapefruit trees completed the usual poinsettias, cyclamens, and narcissi. The year 1962 brought with it significant changes, as it marked the first time in the history of Longwood that there was a complete transformation of the Conservatory from a chrysanthemum display to a Christmas display. Guests experienced approximately 1,000 poinsettias, as well as begonias, primroses, paper-whites, lilies, and more, as well as a 15-foot red-berried American holly at the entrance and a curtain of evergreens in the Exhibition Hall, among other delights.

For Christmas 1964, the sunken Exhibition Hall floor was embellished with a new feature—two long, slightly raised emerald-green turf panels on either side of the flooded marble floor. The panels were edged with red poinsettias and stevias to create the effect of a narrow waterway, while poinsettias placed among the Australian and Mexican tree ferns created a formal sub-tropical garden effect.

The fern floor at Longwood Gardens decorated with ivy and poinsettia's at Christmas.

The Exhibition Hall in 1964, with its narrow waterway and sub-tropical garden feel.

An indoor winter scene at Longwood Gardens.

In 1967, a snowy winter scene filled the Exhibition Hall, above which was suspended a mobile of English ivy bells with green osage-orange clappers.

In 1979, a walk through the Ballroom featured trees decorated by regional garden clubs, after which visitors proceeded into the Music Room where there was a huge Victorian tree. Both rooms became key elements in the holiday display for the first time.

Two images, one showing the Ballroom at Longwood Gardens displaying decorated Christmas tree and the other two people admiring a tall decorated tree in the Music room.

The Ballroom in 1979; the Music Room in 1986.

An overall themed title was first announced in 1980 with A Nutcracker Fantasy; subsequent years featured Trees from Storybook Land, A Holiday with Flowers, and the like. True nostalgia was generated in 1982 and 1983 with the installation of the Enchanted Colonial Village, formerly at Lit Brothers department store in downtown Philadelphia from 1962 to 1976. In 1987, a Winter Carnival theme featured a colorful topiary carousel encircling the East Conservatory fountain.

Two vintage images of the Conservatory at Longwood during Christmas.

The Colonial Village, Christmas 1983, on the site of the present indoor Garden Path. The 1987 East Conservatory topiary carousel.

Two images of Longwood gardens during the holiday display.

What could be more traditional than Santa taking off in 1984, unless … for Baby Boomers, maybe this 2007 tree in the Peirce-du Pont House with LED lights masquerading as old C6 lights, handblown ornaments, and strings of glass beads. Photo on right by Larry Albee.

This year, our A Longwood Christmas display will certainly be one for the ages. Experience the magic as trees draped in throwback baubles to shimmering tinsel to vintage-style bubble lights fill the Conservatory. Enjoy nostalgic steps back in time amid a festive mid-century holiday party and a vintage Christmas street scene. Find surprises at every turn. Along the way, Pierre and Alice du Pont’s spirit of giving and merriment shine through, as does the boundless creativity of those who bring this spectacular display to life, year after year.

Editor’s note: More information on past Christmas displays can be found in Colvin Randall’s book, Longwood Gardens Christmas, with 750 photos, available in The Garden Shop or online.

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