Celebrate the Holidays at National Trust Historic Sites
‘Tis the season at National Trust Historic Sites. From decades-long traditions that are observed, to special tours, theater performances, and lavish decorations, we take a look at how 16 different sites celebrate the holidays.
Lyndhurst, an 1838 Gothic Revival mansion in Tarrytown, New York, is always a festive place to visit, no matter the season. But that’s especially true around the holidays. The site features a full calendar of events, including the one-hour Classic Holiday Mansion Tours. Described as one of the “Ten Best Historic Holiday Tours” by USA Today, these tours take visitors through the mansion, which is lavishly decorated with thousands of twinkling lights; dozens of decorated trees; rarely-seen items that belonged to Lyndhurst’s last owner, Anna Gould, Duchess of Talleyrand; and more.
There’s also theater. Throughout December, Lyndhurst presents Mr. Dickens Tells a Christmas Carol, a re-creation of Charles Dickens’ own performances of his classic novel. Viewers travel around the first floor of the mansion and meet the different characters, including the Ghosts of Christmas Past, Present, and Future. There are also performances of Sherlock Holmes: The Adventure of the Speckled Band, a mystery performed within the rooms of the mansion.
For music lovers, Lyndhurst hosts a holiday concert with West Point Band’s Collective Brass Quintet on December 16. Held in the Carriage House, the concert features seasonal favorites, like songs from The Nutcracker, classic Christmas carols, and a sing-along.
There’s also the Holiday Reception and Gilded Age Concert exclusive to Lyndhurst members on December 11. This nighttime reception immerses guests in the Gilded Age as they explore the mansion and enjoy a repertoire from Christopher Brellochs, featuring saxophone, harp, and vocals
And in late November, there was a Holiday Season Opening event—the only weekend that the mansion is open for general admission during the season—where guests were invited to explore the holiday decorations at their own pace. If you missed this gathering, don’t despair: Lyndhurst’s museum shop is also stocked with seasonal gifts.
Party like it’s the 1950s at Mies van der Rohe’s iconic Farnsworth House in Plano, Illinois. "Mod & Merry: A Farnsworth House Holiday" brings revelers to Dr. Edith Farnsworth’s country retreat (built in 1951) to sip on craft cocktails and enjoy hors d’oeuvres and wine while listening to retro holiday tunes for two weekends in late November and early December.
From November 30 through December 9, visitors can tour the decorated house during the day and enjoy holiday treats while shopping for special holiday merchandise at the gift shop. The site closes for the season on December 9 but will resume public tours on January 5.
James Madison's Montpelier
“A thousand wishes for your happiness and prosperity on every and many Christmas days to come!” wrote Dolley Madison to her niece Mary E.E. Cutts and grandniece Dolley P.M. Cutts on January 2, 1836.
Christmas at Montpelier, the lifelong home of the fourth President of the United States in Orange, Virginia, was not an elaborate affair, which was par for the course in Virginia in the 18th and 19th centuries. James and Dolley Madison did decorate their house, using greenery throughout the interior and mistletoe aplenty—Christmas trees were not yet part of the American tradition. And they opened their house to many guests throughout the season. (You can read more about how the Madisons celebrated the season here.)
Today, Montpelier decorates according to 19th-century customs, with candles, greenery along the fireplace mantels and staircases, and elegant swags on the front door. And on December 1, Montpelier hosted its annual Holiday Open House, with free tours of the house, refreshments, hands-on activities for kids, and a visit from Santa.
From December 26 through January 1, Montpelier will offer free admission for any house tour to kids ages 14 and under.
There’s plenty to feast your eyes on at Villa Finale, the 1876 Italianate mansion built for civic leader and historic preservationist Walter Nold Mathis in what is now San Antonio’s King William Historic District. A special tour called Music For Your Eyes takes visitors around the mansion to hear demonstrations of the site’s collection of music machines—music boxes, antique turntables, and more—as tour guides tell little-known holiday stories about the instruments, the songs played, and Christmas traditions around the globe. At the end of the tour, there’s a 15-minute concert of traditional holiday songs played on Mathis’ automated 1921 Bechstein-Welte reproducing piano. Champagne is provided.
On December 7, bring plenty of blankets to Villa Finale, as the site presents a free outdoor screening of camp classic Santa Claus Conquers the Martians, which the site’s staff bills as “the best worst movie you’ll see this Christmas.” Popcorn and hot cider will be served.
There’s also a live, outdoor performance of the Charles Dickens classic, A Christmas Carol, on December 15, set against the backdrop of the Victorian mansion.
The holiday season was a festive one for the Douglases, the second family to live at Brucemore in Cedar Rapids, Iowa. George Douglas, of the Quaker Oats and Douglas & Company fortunes, moved to the 1884 Queen Anne mansion in 1906 with his wife, Irene, and daughters, Margaret and Ellen. Both Irene and Margaret celebrated December birthdays, and two years after moving to Brucemore, a third Douglas daughter, Barbara, was born just two days before Christmas. Local newspapers wrote about the lavish parties thrown at the estate throughout December.
The 21-room mansion continues to be at its most festive during that month. There are 13 trees and strands upon strands of garland throughout the interior. Holiday Mansion Tours run Wednesdays through Saturdays during the month, taking visitors around all four floors as guides share stories of how the three families who lived at Brucemore rang in the holidays.
Brucemore has something for the kids, too. The annual Santa, Snacks, and Stories events on December 9, 10, 16, and 17 gives children an opportunity to participate in a craft project, listen to holiday stories, eat holiday treats, and, of course, meet Santa.
And this year, a new event—Music in the Mansion Holiday Tours—celebrates the return of Brucemore’s Skinner Player Pipe Organ after a multi-year preservation project, which included work on the blower room, the removal and cleaning of all 715 pipes, and the restoration of the organ consul. Each Sunday afternoon and Thursday evening in December, an organist will be on hand to play holiday music as visitors explore the mansion.
Twenty-three historic buildings in downtown Monterey, California, will open their doors to holiday revelers on December 7 and 8 this year as part of the city’s 35th annual Christmas in the Adobes event. One of those buildings is the Cooper-Molera Adobe, which dates back to 1827 and re-opened to the public earlier this year after extensive renovations.
Christmas in the Adobes is a self-guided, nighttime walking tour of the city’s downtown historic sites, with living history portrayers, refreshments, games, dance lessons, music, and entertainment. The event is sponsored by the Monterey State Historic Park Association.
The African American Spirituals Concert has been a Drayton Hall holiday tradition for more than three decades. Running December 1, 8, and 15 this year, the concert features a performance by Ann Caldwell and the Magnolia Singers, who perform Gullah spirituals and tell stories indigenous to the South Carolina Lowcountry.
The event is one of the longest-running performances of its kind in the area, and one of the most popular holiday traditions in Charleston, South Carolina. Held in the raised English basement of the site’s main building, the concerts offer a rare opportunity for visitors to gather at this unrestored plantation house and experience music that could have been heard centuries ago in the surrounding fields and praise houses. Guests are also treated to a wine and cheese reception and informal tours of the main house prior to the performances.
On December 2, The Shop at Drayton Hall hosted its first Holiday Sip & Shop event, with Lowcountry-inspired gifts available to purchase, tax-free. Select vendors were on-hand to offer samples to visitors and share the stories behind their wares. There was live holiday music to set the mood for the afternoon.
The President Woodrow Wilson House
The halls of the President Woodrow Wilson House in Washington, D.C., are decked for the holidays, with a giant Christmas tree—placed in the same location where the Wilsons always had it—featuring 1920s-era ornaments; elaborately decorated fireplace mantles; and Edith Wilson’s reindeer figurines on display. The house was open for a night in late November for Holidays Through History, an open house held jointly with two other area museums featuring craft and period-appropriate cocktails.
The main museum rooms and the restored gardens of the President Woodrow Wilson House are also available for rent throughout the month, providing a festive venue for holiday dinners, receptions, or meetings.
Touro Synagogue in Newport, Rhode Island, was dedicated on Dec. 2, 1763, the first night of Chanukah that year. In 1790, George Washington wrote a letter to the “Hebrew congregation at Newport,” declaring that our new nation would give “to bigotry no sanction, to persecution no assistance.”
Now, the oldest synagogue building in the United States stands as a symbol of religious freedom for all Americans.
On December 2, Touro Synagogue celebrated the 255th anniversary of its dedication with an open house event, allowing visitors to explore the synagogue and its visitors center, and to enjoy refreshments on the patio. Congregation Jeshuat Israel at Touro Synagogue hosted its annual community Chanukah Party that evening as well, allowing guests to be a part of the lighting of the candles and enjoy latkes, music, and dancing.
“Holidays at Filoli” is in full swing this year at the Woodside, California, estate. This year’s theme is “Luminous—A Celebration of Color and Light,” and both the Georgian Revival mansion and its formal gardens are decorated in that spirit. There are guided holiday tours, where visitors can learn about the history and the holiday traditions of the families who once called Filoli home. There’s live entertainment on the weekends, with choral, instrumental, and dance performances.
Holiday Tea events are held throughout the month, serving traditional holiday treats, and a special holiday market featuring a wide array of vendors at the site’s Clock Tower Shop.
Inside the Garden House, there’s a Holiday Wine Bar, featuring a selection of wine and beer for purchase. Visitors are encouraged to sit by the fire pit with a glass of mulled wine or a cup of coffee.
On Saturdays, Santa Claus makes an appearance, with family-friendly activities and programs planned throughout the day. And on December 20, Filoli hosts a Winter Solstice Celebration to celebrate the shortest day of the year.
The calendar at Oatlands is packed around the holiday season. The 19th-century mansion in Leesburg, Virginia, is decorated for the holidays and open to the public for self-guided tours. The fully-dressed tree in the Entrance Hall is always a highlight.
The annual Friends of Oatlands Holiday Party was held December 1, which supports education and preservation at the site. The event included a tour of the mansion, followed by Christmas carols by candlelight and a lavish reception.
For two Saturdays in December, Oatlands is open for its Candlelight Mansion Tour, where visitors can take in the Christmas lights and decoration, and enjoy refreshments in the Carriage House.
Afternoon Tea is served from 1 to 3 p.m. on Thursdays through Fridays at Oatlands. There’s a blend of black tea with calendula, scones, assorted tea sandwiches, and sweets.
And Oatlands’ head gardener, Mark Schroeter, leads a wreath-making workshop on December 11 and 12.
The Glass House
The Glass House, the modern architectural landmark built by Philip Johnson between 1949 and 1995 in New Canaan, Connecticut, is closed for the season. But you can still get your fix at the Glass House Design Store, which remains open every Saturday leading up to Christmas.
It’s fully decorated for the holidays and stocked with a carefully curated selection of wares that align with Johnson’s sensibilities. There are books, cocktail glasses, vases, platters, candles, lamps, and a paperweight shaped like Johnson’s glasses, designed exclusively for the Glass House Design Store.
Can’t make it to New Canaan? Not to worry—you can shop online at designstore.theglasshouse.org.
All proceeds go to preservation of the site.
The Shadows in New Iberia, Louisiana, was built in 1834 by sugar planter David Weeks. On Dec. 25, 1845, a member of the Weeks family wrote to local judge John Moore, describing the family’s holiday traditions: “This is Christmas Day—Present my warm regards to Mrs. Moore and all the family to whom I wish many happy returns of this merry-making season.”
“Merry-Making Season” is now a part of The Shadows’ tradition. This year, the season runs from December 1 to December 31. The house is decorated for the holidays with greenery, antique toys, and a Christmas tree adorned with period ornaments. During this time, visitors can take guided tours that highlight 19th-century holiday celebrations.
The Shadows also hosts a program over the course of nine days each December called “Growing Up at The Shadows—Through the Eyes of a Child,” where first-grade students from the parish’s gifted and talented program present a theatrical performance comparing and contrasting 19th-century holiday preparations with their own. Characters include Charley and Harriet Weeks, who grew up at the house, as well as two children of Louisa Bryant, the enslaved housekeeper. This year marks the 41st anniversary of the program.
The Shadows also hosts its Holiday Market, featuring arts, crafts, foods, and beverages sold by artists and vendors from throughout Louisiana.
The Gaylord Building
Wreaths and garlands adorn the exterior of the Gaylord Building in Lockport, Illinois. The holiday cheer continues inside, as well.
This handsome limestone warehouse was built in 1838 to store materials for the construction of the Illinois & Michigan Canal and later went on to house various commercial ventures. The Gaylord Building today is open for both guided and self-guided tours, with exhibition galleries dedicated to the history of the canal and the region’s heritage.
There’s also a restaurant and gallery inside the building, which provide a festive atmosphere for guests during the holiday season. The Public Landing restaurant is a popular spot to rent for holiday events and offers a special menu for diners on Christmas Eve, Christmas, and New Year’s Eve. And Gallery Seven, a fine art gallery on the Gaylord Building’s second floor, hosts a holiday gift show from November 23 to December 30, with unique gift items by local artisans.
Hotel de Paris Museum
Georgetown, Colorado’s annual Georgetown Christmas Market takes place the first two full weekends of December. During that time, the Hotel de Paris Museum—which, after it was established in 1875 by French immigrant Louis Dupuy, operated as a hotel, boarding house, residence, restaurant, and showroom for traveling salesmen until the 1930s—is open to the public from 10 a.m. to 5 p.m. for self-guided tours, allowing visitors to see the site decked out in full holiday regalia. (The Georgetown Christmas Market is a contender for USA Today's 10 Best Holiday Markets in the nation; the town is a National Trust Distinctive Destination.)
Vintage vinyl albums are spun in the kitchen—think Bing Crosby, Nat King Cole, Elvis Presley, John Denver, and Peggy Lee—and The Colonial Dames of America in the State of Colorado provide fresh home baked cookies and warm apple cider.
This year, the Hotel de Paris Museum has a new Chinese-themed Christmas tree, as a tribute to the Chinese workers who built large parts of the hotel and gardened on its grounds.
The Museum of African American History
The Museum of African American History, along with the Handel and Haydn Society, presents an annual celebration of freedom and liberty with a special New Year’s Eve concert, held this year at Trinity Church in Boston.
This is the seventh year the museum has hosted this event. It allows attendees to learn about the role Boston’s black and white abolitionists played in President Abraham Lincoln’s issuing of the Emancipation Proclamation, which was signed Jan. 1, 1863. That day was dubbed “Jubilee Day,” and those who supported the abolitionist movement gathered at churches throughout Boston to celebrate. Members of the Handel and Haydn Society, Boston’s oldest performing arts organization, performed for the celebrations. And this New Year’s Eve, you can hear the group perform some of those same songs, while also hearing stories about the 19th-century African American community on Beacon Hill.
Discover how other historic sites around the country celebrate the holidays through the National Trust’s Distinctive Destinations program.
This story is an updated version of our 2017 Holiday Round-Up.