The Magic of a Winterthur Christmas

By Debbie Harper, Curator of Education

The Conservatory was always the centerpiece of H.F. du Pont’s holiday decor

I just came back from wandering through the Yuletide Tour. I do this every morning, from the time the tour opens in November until it closes in January. I don’t think other Winterthur curators walk through the exhibitions they mount in the Galleries every day, but then, they don’t have the potential of finding that a whole strand of lights on a fully decorated tree has gone out and needs to be fixed before the first visitors arrive. That has happened a few times over the years, but not today. Today all I did was fluff some snow in the Court, deadhead a camellia, and reposition the TARDIS. (Those of you who don’t know what a TARDIS is, don’t worry; those of you who do know, I’m playing “Where’s the TARDIS?” on the tour this year, so come see if you can spot it!)

Winterthur’s Steinway piano, purchased in 1907 H.A. du Pont but always associated with his daughter-in-law Ruth Wales du Pont, an accomplished pianist who played for family and friends

I love walking through the Yuletide Tour. I love hearing the music, especially that of Mrs. du Pont’s 1907 Steinway. We recorded it over the summer, so even on days when our pianist is not here, visitors can still hear it. Some guides have even reported that visitors have taken their partners’ hands and danced right there in the Chinese Parlor!

I am surprised to find myself stunned anew every day by the beauty of the displays: the fragrant flowers, the gorgeous trees, and the treasure trove of intriguing objects gathered into Mr. du Pont’s glorious rooms to convey stories of Christmas long ago.

A tree celebrating Winterthur’s earliest blooming garden, the March Bank, on display in the Baltimore Room

Considering how much time I spend researching the stories, canvassing the collection for special objects to highlight, and mentally rearranging the furniture again and again, one would think I would be past the point of gaping at the Conservatory display, or singing with the carolers in the Court, or resisting the urge to touch the snow blanketing my talented colleague Mack Truax’s ethereal March Bank tree because I can’t help but wonder if it feels as icy as it looks. How is it that I can still wonder? I know the snow is an inert plastic that will not off-gas any fumes that might potentially harm collection objects, and I know it is not icy! And yet, there is magic at Christmas, and there is always magic at Winterthur. Somehow, even for me, there is magic in the Yuletide Tour still. So, just maybe . . . .

Somehow, through all of the efforts of all of the people who take a hand in bringing it together, the Yuletide Tour inevitably ends up being so much more than I expect—so much bigger on the inside than it seems from the outside and such a wonderful opportunity to travel through time to rediscover holiday traditions from long ago. Most important, it allows us to be a part of the holiday traditions of our visitors, neighbors, and friends from near and far. I hope we count you among them!

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