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 13 different sites celebrate the holidays.
Lyndhurst, an 1838 Gothic Revival mansion in Tarrytown, New York, is always a festive site 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. These tours take visitors through the mansion, 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 Blue Carbuncle, which follows Sherlock Holmes and Dr. Watson through Victorian London as they solve a Christmastime mystery.
For music lovers, Lyndhurst hosts a holiday concert, “A Collective Christmas,” with popular New York-based chamber music group Collective Brass. Held in the Carriage House, the concert features seasonal favorites, like songs from The Nutcracker and classic Christmas carols.
And in early December, there was a Holiday Open House and Shopping Boutique. This event, hosted by the Junior League of Westchester-on-Hudson, featured several dozen vendors selling specialty gift items in and around the Carriage House. If you missed this annual event, don’t despair: Lyndhurst’s museum shop is also stocked with seasonal gifts.
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 Jan. 2, 1836.
During the era that James and Dolley Madison lived at Montpelier, the lifelong home of the fourth President of the United States in Orange County, Virginia, Christmas was celebrated in a more staid fashion than it is today. Greenery was used to decorate the interior, with mistletoe aplenty, but Christmas trees were not yet part of the American tradition.
Today, Montpelier decorates in a period-appropriate fashion, with greenery along the fireplace mantels and staircases, and elegant swags on the front door. And in early December, Montpelier hosts an annual Holiday Open House, with period-appropriate activities geared toward children. There’s a workshop for writing Christmas greetings—the types of letters the Madisons and their friends would have offered to their acquaintances during the holiday season, in the time before greeting cards existed. Children use a quill and ink to pen their own greetings, and learn how to fold a letter, make an envelope, and place a seal on it. There’s also a workshop on making paper cuttings (intricately-cut paper decorations) and candle ornaments (a paper craft that can be placed over a candlestick).
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.
There’s also a live, outdoor performance of the Charles Dickens classic, A Christmas Carol, on Dec. 16, set against the backdrop of the Victorian mansion.
And on Dec. 22, bring plenty of blankets to Villa Finale, as the site presents a free outdoor screening of camp classic Santa Claus Conquers the Martians, which they bill as “the best worst movie you’ll ever see this holiday season.” Popcorn and hot cider will be served.
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 Brucemore 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. Daytime Holiday Mansion Tours run during the month and feature live piano music on Sundays. And on Thursday evenings in December, the mansion offers special Evening Holiday Mansion Tours, taking visitors throughout the site as it’s lit up for the holidays. Both of these tours are opportunities for staff to share stories of how the three families who lived at Brucemore celebrated the holidays, while also showcasing holiday items in the site’s collection.
Brucemore has something for the kids, too. The annual Santa, Snacks, and Stories event gives children an opportunity to participate in a craft project, listen to holiday stories, make a snack in the mansion’s kitchen, and, of course, meet Santa.
For the 34th consecutive year, Drayton Hall presents its African American Spirituals Concert. Running Dec. 2, 3, and 9 this year, the concert will feature three performances 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 catered reception and informal tours of the main house prior to the performances.
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 earlier this month 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.” More than 200 years later, the oldest synagogue building in the United States stands as a symbol of religious freedom for all Americans.
In that spirit, Touro Synagogue is a part of Newport’s Holiday Traditions Open House, where nine historic houses of worship open their doors to the public to share how holiday traditions are practiced by different faiths. This year’s event is held on Dec. 26 from 11 a.m. to 2 p.m. and is free of charge.
On Dec. 17 from 3 to 5 p.m., Congregation Jeshuat Israel at Touro Synagogue hosts its annual community Chanukah Party at the Levi Gale House at 85 Touro St. Guests can be a part of the lighting of the candles and enjoy latkes, music, and dancing. Children’s entertainment is provided, as well. Reservations are required in advance.
“Holidays at Filoli” is in full swing this year at the Woodside, California, estate. Both the Georgian Revival mansion and its formal gardens are decorated for the season. There are guided holiday tours, where visitors can learn about the history of the families who have called Filoli home, as well as their holiday traditions.
Holiday Tea events are held throughout the month, serving traditional holiday treats, and daily, live entertainment is scheduled, with choral, instrumental, and dance performances. There are holiday decor and floral design classes throughout December. And a special month-long holiday market, featuring a wide array of vendors, has been set up outside 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.
On Saturdays, Santa Claus makes an appearance, with activities and
programs geared toward families. And on Dec. 21, Filoli hosts a Winter Solstice
Celebration to celebrate the shortest day of the year.
The calendar at Oatlands is packed around the holiday season, starting in mid-November and continuing through the end of the year. 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 Drawing Room is always a highlight.
This year, a few additional items are on exhibit during the holiday season. Wedding dresses, party dresses, bodices, gloves, and handbags are displayed throughout the mansion’s second-floor bedrooms, some owned by the site and others loaned from the nearby Loudoun Museum. And in the Dining Room, pieces from the site’s silver collection can also be viewed.
Oatlands also hosts its annual candlelight tours, where visitors can tour the decorated mansion in the evening and enjoy refreshments in the Carriage House. This year, the site is offering a new candlelight hayride, taking visitors around the grounds in a hay wagon decorated with bells and wreaths. In addition, the site’s head gardener conducted a wreath-making workshop in early December.
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 Dec. 2 to Dec. 23, with The Shadows 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 40th anniversary of the program.
New at The Shadows this year is a Holiday Craft Fair, featuring arts, crafts, foods, and beverages sold by artists and vendors from throughout Louisiana.
President Lincoln's Cottage
The holiday season at President Lincoln’s Cottage in Washington, D.C., is geared toward the ladies.
On the grounds of the site where Lincoln lived and worked for more than a quarter of his presidency is the Armed Forces Retirement Home. And since 2003, President Lincoln’s Cottage has partnered with the retirement home around Christmastime to host the Ladies Tea Program.
This is the only program dedicated to honoring and celebrating the home’s women—who make up only 11 percent of the population there. (The home didn’t admit women until 1955.)
It’s a way to thank the women for their service, with a meal, tea, raffle prizes, and party games. Says Michelle Martz, visitor services associate manager: “It’s essentially one big party.”
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 for self-guided tours, allowing visitors to see the site decked out in full holiday regalia.
Vintage vinyl albums are spun in the kitchen—think Bing Crosby, Nat King Cole, and Elvis Presley—and The Colonial Dames of America in the State of Colorado provide fresh home baked cookies and warm apple cider.
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 sixth 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.