Winterthur, the Delaware home of Henry Francis du Pont and his family, is a museum today, but in his lifetime, it was their family home. That’s never more evident than during the Christmas season, when visitors see rooms filled with the decorations, gifts and flowers, as it was when the duPont children were growing up there.
It’s difficult to imagine the rooms of the mansion being any more beautiful than they are the rest of the year, each one decorated as a showcase for the world’s finest collection of American furniture and decorative arts. But the Yuletide Tour brings not only the color and glamor of holiday decorations to the rooms, but also a sense of the delight the duPonts took in celebrating the holidays.
Stunningly decorated trees highlight several rooms, and two of them, one 14 feet tall, celebrate the Winterthur gardens. These are completely decorated in dried flowers, with burst of pink and red globe amaranth, blue statice, Queen Anne’s Lace, larkspur, money plant and yellow yarrow, interspersed with big puffs of hydrangea.
Dramatic peonies, their colors garden-fresh, are focal points among the daffodils, multi-colored zinnias and delicate pink roses so fresh you expect to see dew drops on their petals. Fragile orange Japanese lantern blossoms hang like ornaments at the barely visible fir tips. Flowers, we learned, are harvested throughout the seasons and either air-dried or, for the more fragile blossoms, carefully packed in silica-gel to retain their just-picked shapes and colors.
The tree in the glass-walled Conservatory is surrounded by banks of Poinsettias, and more line the side of the grand curving staircase and spread out at its foot as though they had cascaded down the stairs. The graceful banisters are draped with ropes of evergreen boughs, tied in place because Mrs. duPont would not allow any tacks to mar the fine woodwork in the house.
Other trees are decorated in more traditional ways, and this year a tree replicates the one that stood in the White House in 1962, decorated by First Lady Jacqueline Kennedy. It recognizes the special exhibition Jacqueline Kennedy and H. F. du Pont: From Winterthur to the White House, which opens here in May, 2022. With a theme of a “Children’s Christmas,” it is decorated with tiny wrapped packages, angels, stuffed animals, birds, stars, snowflakes, reindeer and candy canes.
An exhibition on display in the galleries during the Yuletide Tour season expands on the garden theme by exploring how nature influenced and inspired duPont’s design ethic. Outside In: Nature-inspired Design at Winterthur, on view through January 2, explores the connections to nature in everything from wallcoverings to the use of nature collections as ornaments (duPont collected birds’ nests from the time he was a child).
The parlor where the family and their guests opened gifts on Christmas Day, is set for the occasion, with baskets of gifts beside the chairs, each basket tagged with a name. A traditional Christmas tree covered in lights and glass balls stands by a window, and Christmas cards line the mantelpiece. A forest of miniature fir trees with a reindeer covers a side table; with the lavishly decorated trees drawing your eyes in each room, these little vignettes are easy to overlook.
The dining room table is set for Christmas dinner, decorated with reindeer. Other family traditions are represented in the decorated rooms on the tour, including the custom of New Year’s calling, where on January 1, the men traveled from house to house visiting and bringing gifts for the women of each household.
Along with the Yuletide Tours, special programs highlight the season. Wonderful Wednesdays in December feature evenings with live jazz performances, caroling, and workshops that include candle-making, chocolate tasting and building terrariums.
Yuletide guests can also visit the museum galleries to see the 18-room dollhouse fully decorated for the holidays, as well as the “Outside In: Nature-Inspired Design at Winterthur” and other current special exhibitions.
Although the gardens are not in bloom, the estate’s grounds are worth exploring, especially the Enchanted Woods. You don’t have to be a child to love this magical place, where even the Faery Cottage and the Tulip Tree House are decorated for Christmas.
Also in the Brandywine Valley, beautifully decorated for the season and easy to combine with a visit to Winterthur, are the neighboring duPont Nemours Estate and the outstanding Longwood Gardens. Find more information on visiting Winterthur at www.winterthur.org/holidays.
By Barbara Radcliffe Rogers
Europe Correspondent, Planetware
Luxury Travel Editor, BellaOnline
Features, Global Traveler Magazine
Photos © Stillman Rogers