Longwood Gardens’ Christmas Spectacular is a tradition more than 50 years in the making.
Back in the early 1900s, when business scion Pierre S. du Pont first built Longwood Gardens on more than 200 acres of Brandywine countryside and created a 4.5-acre indoor conservatory (today, the Gardens encompass more than 1,000 acres), he probably didn’t imagine that his horticultural masterpiece would one day be one of the country’s, if not the world’s, most sensational ode to the holidays. An awe-inspiring floral winter wonderland made up of over 500,000 lights, illuminated dancing fountains, and angelic choirs, a Longwood Christmas has become a revered and beloved tradition for generations of Main Line families.
“A Longwood Christmas is great for the entire family,” says Paul Redman, executive director of Longwood Gardens, about the holiday spectacular that first started back in the early ’60s. “Whether it’s beautiful horticulture, elaborately decorated trees, a magical light display, or holiday music at every turn, you can’t leave Longwood without getting into the holiday spirit. People come every year to see what’s new, but also to enjoy the tradition of experiencing it with family and friends.”
Every year holds a new theme, and it is a creative, collaborative process that starts many months in advance. Longwood’s display designer and Christmas Committee brainstorm a number of concepts, and no idea is off the table. Themes are storyboarded with tons of pictures that could potentially morph into a spectacular display. Once a theme is picked, plants have to be chosen almost a year ahead so they can grow to the needed size and bloom time.
When it comes to favorites, the creative masterminds behind the displays say that choosing just one is akin to picking a favorite child, but when pressed, they do have their personal darlings. “I love them all, but if I had to choose, possibly my favorite display would be from 2008, when our Exhibition Hall was filled with nearly 400,000 floating cranberries. It was colorful, innovative, and creative, and guests loved it,” says Redman. “It’s a tough one,” seconds Jim Sutton, display designer for Longwood. “Last year, we had a fruit-inspired theme that featured a 70-foot-long apple tapestry on our Fern Floor that I thought was stunning. It included more than 18,000 apples,” he says.
This year, Christmas takes flight at Longwood with a bird-inspired display. Throughout the Conservatory, guests will see trees—some as high as 20 feet—adorned with bird inspired ornaments, while bird motifs composed of different kinds of materials (glass, wood, and feathers) have been incorporated into a variety of garden spaces. Grand topiary swans and whimsical trees depicting storybook classics The Ugly Duckling and The Goose That Laid the Golden Egg add to the overall theme. Outdoors, they’ve expanded the light display to include more than 500,000 lights and 124 lit trees.
“The Music Room is always a highlight of the display, and this year is no exception,” says Sutton. “The room will be decked out for a Peacock Masquerade Ball, featuring a stunning 18-foot revolving tree adorned in blue, gold, and purple.” Add to that an elaborate table setting, resplendent with china, linens, and masks reflecting the leitmotif of the room, and guests young and old will wish they were attending the gala themselves.
And if fantastical birds and trees aren’t necessarily your thing, there’s also the Garden Railway, a veritable kid-sized city where many different locomotives and engines chug and wind their way through tunnels, across bridges, and over water. This year, the Railway changed stations and is now near the Birdhouse Treehouse, so expect an exhibit that’s different from previous years.
There are also yearly holiday favorites that keep families coming back time after time. In the Chimes Tower, revelers can hear the 62-bell carillon pipe out holiday tunes every half an hour, or they can take in a daily live performance played on the 10,010-pipe organ. Plus, the 16,000 holiday plants—think poinsettias accented with amaryllis, begonias, and hydrangea—impart the quintessential Christmas feel.
“For many families in the Delaware Valley, a visit to Longwood Gardens is a tradition they remember as children, and continue by bringing their own children to the Gardens during the holiday season,” says Sutton. “I think it’s impossible to visit during the season and not catch the Christmas spirit.” Redman couldn’t agree more. “The outdoor light display, the choirs, concerts, and sing-alongs get everyone in the holiday spirit. And the elegance and beauty of the Conservatory display is unmatched. A Longwood Christmas is romantic, lavish, traditional, fun—and not to be missed.”