The decision all came down to the elevators.
For Winterthur Museum’s traditional Yuletide tours of the past, visitors were ferried to three floors of the former du Pont mansion via small elevators. That meant a guide and about 10 guests packed shoulder to shoulder for the brief trips.
The cars are so small, there’s not enough room to social distance more than 2 people.
Faced with a fundamental blow to COVID-19 guidelines, Winterthur planners thoughtfully changed the direction of their annual holiday offering (because, darling, no one at Winterthur would be caught dead pivoting in public).
The result: a self-guided tour of fifth floor rooms of the house, more decorations outside for those who prefer to walk the estate, some tram tours and a first-time light show projected onto the front of the house that follows former owner Henry Francis du Pont preparing for and throwing a staff Christmas party. The light show ended Dec. 12, but the house is open through Jan. 3.
“Following a fabulous 40th anniversary celebration of Yuletide at Winterthur in 2019, the grand holiday experience is branching out in new directions to kick off the next decades,” said Deborah Harper, senior curator of education. “In addition to the traditional tour of the house decorated to celebrate the holidays as H.F. du Pont and his family experienced them, new exterior décor and a full roster of programs and family experiences move the party around the property to celebrate in grand style.”
The house decided to limit admission to 36 people an hour, about 26 percent of what a full admission should be. That choice proved providential (Winterthur doesn’t “get lucky”) when the state recently asked museums to return to 30 percent capacity.
“We were already there,” Harper said.
Some of those outdoor decorations include shimmering silver balls that appear to be cascading down a waterfall, getting caught in a gooseneck narrowing and then filling the koi pond below. Nearby, the same silver ornaments float on the pool.
“We really wanted people to walk,” Harper said.
Decorated areas include the McIntyre entrance to the mansion, the gazebo between the visitor’s center and the Doors of Winter in the greenhouses, each decorated with natural materials by a member of the estate’s horticultural staff.
Many people have told the staff that they are happy to be able to get out and ramble the estate’s 1,000 acres. Some even prefer that to going on the house tour, which has been busy enough that Winterthur is adding additional hours heading into the end of the year (one does not disappoint the masses).
The new house tour starts with a tram dropping people off at the carriage house, at the foot of the driveway leading to the conservatory. Guests enter there and get a peek at the magnificent flower tree on their way to the Marlboro Parlor, set up for Christmas afternoon.
When the du Ponts were in residence, each guest settled into a seat already marked by a woven basket full of gifts to him or her. They were opened during tea, which is spread out on a nearby table.
In the Empire Parlor, a small tree is festooned with silver and other ornaments in the manner they would have been when H.F. du Pont was a child. Gifts are wrapped in white tissue paper, which would have been the custom then.
Some of the flowers in the room are bowls of pink roses. Du Pont liked flowers of a single kind grouped together, and roses were associated with Christmas before poinsettias became the plant that denotes the holiday, Harper said.
This year’s dining room table has three big bottle brush trees down the center, with a garland of silver beads racing around them.
The grand Montmorenci staircase this year is decorated with antique gift giver figures — perhaps not quite “Santa,” but maybe St. Nick — on loan from a collector.
“We’ve shown these before, but never in this venue, and I absolutely love them going up the stairs,” Harper said.
The final stop is the conservatory, with its 15-foot tall dried flower tree that’s about 8 feet wide at the base. The tree is decorated with flowers from the estate that its florists have dried during the year and then wire to the branches before the tour begins. This year, instead of a sprinkling of lights, there’s a ribbon of them running around the tree.
The tree usually stands in the middle of the conservatory, blocking a visitor’s view of the giant carved eagle. This year, though, it’s to the far end of the building, opposite the entrance and exit. The eagle remains in its own place of pride, banked by rows of poinsettias,.
Outside, guests have a choice of taking the tram to the galleries, where they can see a fabulous Suffragette tree before taking in “Lady of the House,” an exhibit about Ruth Wales du Pont, who was married to Henry Francis.
Patrons also can ride or walk back to the visitor’s center.
The walk takes them past the white gazebo decorated with square vine wreaths outside and vine kissing balls inside.
In the nearby greenhouse, a row of doors that had been relegated to storage rooms have been liberated and decorated with wreaths of natural materials, including small terracotta pots, greenery, wood, dried flowers and fruit.
Some outdoor areas are even lit by light, a first of sorts for Winterthur. It’s been so well received (Winterthur does not have squealing fanladies and fangentlemen) that the staff is mulling adding more next year, both for beauty and for safety for their walking members.
“It’s not just a matter of throwing lights everywhere,” Harper said. “We’d have to be very deliberate about that.”
Another change for Yuletide was that it was open on Thanksgiving and will be on Christmas.
Those who volunteered to work on Thanksgiving — including Winterthur CEO Carol Cadou and family — were touched by the gratitude of people who came through the tour. Many were couples or singles who couldn’t be with family or friends and were happy to have an outing.
“They were so appreciative,” Harper said.