A Longwood Christmas
The East Conservatory halls are decked. Same with the Mediterranean Garden floor. The Ballroom ceiling, as well. And don’t forget those Rose House windows.
Indeed, the entire infrastructure at Longwood Gardens now resembles a giant Christmas snowglobe, swathed in wreaths, garlands, and a forest of ornamented evergreens. Encompassing over a thousand acres, the botanical wonderland is a year-round destination that elevates the artistry of horticulture. During the holidays, though, you’ll want to stay on the nice list, as being naughty would make you miss out on tidings of comfort and joy. “Every day at Longwood is beautiful, but Christmas is an extravaganza for the entire family,” declares Patricia Evans, Director of Communications. “Many visitors make the Gardens a seasonal tradition.”
It’s easy to see how the yearly custom would take hold, given the timetable of preparation needed to reshape Longwood into the likeness of Currier and Ives. While most of us are soaking up the final rays of summer, an envoy of Santa’s elves abandon their sandcastles in favor of twinkling pageantry. “The outdoor lights begin to go up after Labor Day and are completed in mid-November. The whole Conservatory is transformed in three days – beginning the Sunday before Thanksgiving, in time for opening the display on Thanksgiving Day. About one hundred employees work on the changeover,” Evans says. Soaring tannenbaums, of course, anchor A Longwood Christmas. Fifty trees, ranging from six to 22 feet in height, are scattered throughout the cozy indoors, while several dozen more get glammed up outside. All conifers shine brightly, thanks to those elves and their adept stringing of a half-million lights, no small feat of landscaping abracadabra.
While basking in their own illumination, the trunks and branches collectively canopy 16,000 blooms that lie beneath them: a surplus of amaryllis, camellias, and paperwhites whose own color palette is enriched by floating, star-like orbs. But the creative genius behind the Gardens’ masterpieces doesn’t limit itself to timbers with pine boughs. “Longwood reimagines its trees through books, birdhouses, and cut glass. We also have distinctive versions fashioned from plant materials, such as tumbleweed, succulents, and tropical flowers. There are twists at every turn,” enthuses Evans. The most striking of these is a fierce red tide generated by poinsettias. Not simply relegated to filling corners or flanking doorways, this Christmas blossom is tiered to resemble an oversized version of the hoop skirt Cinderella wears to greet Prince Charming.
Before long, however, sights and smells meld with sounds. Nutcracker vignettes will sweeten your Gardens stop, with instrumentalists strumming in airy Exhibition Hall. The ballet excerpts are performed amidst a backdrop of festooned foliage, lofty palms, and the original sunken marble floor. Local gospel groups, madrigal singers, and handbell choirs will surely have you grinning from ear to ear.
Outside, colorful fountains dance to holiday tunes, as carollers fa-la-la around a trio of fire pits. Here, hot chocolate will revive fingertips before reaching eager tummies. Refreshed, you’ll then embark on a journey that evokes Victorian times. Nestled in the Idea Garden, a seasonal railway chugs along, passing village miniatures – the toy store, bakery, post office, butcher shop – that Dickens described with precise animation.
New Year’s activities also promise a heaping of family-friendly goodness. Children can enjoy face painting, balloon artists, and a craft station, while organ concerts and sing-a-longs raise the Ballroom’s rafters. The lighthearted itinerary reaches its peak with fireworks shortly after dusk.
Located in Kennett Square, PA, an hour outside Philadelphia, Longwood Gardens was founded by preservationist Pierre du Pont, who bought the historic arboretum to prevent it from being cut for lumber. Since 1906, the green thumb hub has diversified its mission beyond a plethora of petals to include design, educational, and arts programs.
Longwood’s core focus, as always, remains firmly rooted in plant life. Inside the Conservatory, guests find a lush world of cacti, bromeliads, ferns, and bonsai, accompanied by scientific classifications. This descriptive nomenclature may not be elementary, but no matter, since your eyes will soak up flora to the point of oversaturation. Within the glass corral, a kiddie enclave rests among its adult counterparts. Whether boys and girls want to investigate a rain pavilion, roam a jungle of oversized bamboos, or play hide-and-seek in a central cove, the Indoor Children’s Garden harbors a winsome environment where they’ll learn about nature, with escapades around each corner.
So, you won’t find a post-holiday letdown in this enchanted spot, just a different phase of merry-and-bright exploration. January sees the return of two Longwood favorites, geared toward preschoolers. Storytime, coordinated by a staff volunteer, is told weekly, while Kids Garden Adventure spotlights what’s currently blooming in the Conservatory, with emphasis on an annual orchid exhibit dovetailed into the New Year’s magic.
With all these goings-on, Evans has some advice for the estimated 400,000 patrons expected to pass through her venue in the coming weeks: “Plan ahead, and put A Longwood Christmas at the top of your wish list.” Sounds like something even the Grinch couldn’t steal.
By: Tom Eccleston
1001 Longwood Road
Kennett Square, PA 19348