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Greenville & Hockessin Life

Bringing the magic of Christmas to Winterthur is a full-time job

Nov 11, 2015 08:27AM ● By J. Chambless

By John Chambless
Staff Writer

For many families, it just wouldn't be Christmas without seeing Yuletide at Winterthur Museum, Garden and Library. And Yuletide at Winterthur wouldn't happen without many willing workers, under the direction of Debbie Harper.

During an interview in an elegant sitting room at Winterthur last month, Harper had a few minutes to talk about how she guides the installation of Yuletide every year.

Debbie Harper, the curator for the Yuletide exhibition, with Winty, the newest addition to the Winterthur holiday display.

 “That first visit was during December,” she said. “But because I was with a college group, we didn't take the Yuletide tour. I had never heard of the Yuletide tour, or been to Delaware. We were up on the seventh floor and were able to look down the Montmorenci staircase and there, down at the bottom, was this table with a massive bowl of punch and greenery, and I said to my guide, 'What's going on down there?' And she said, 'That's our Yuletide tour. You must come back and see it sometime.'” “I first came to Winterthur in my senior year of college,” she said. “I was a music major, and I had taken a history course, and the professor was enamored with Winterthur, and I wanted an A. So I came along on the voluntary field trip and fell in love with Winterthur.

Harper did come back, and became the an assistant to the Yuletide coordinator in 1989. She has been in charge of the event since 1997. The work, she said, “is constant. It's a big part of my job. We're already talking about Christmas 2016. Some part of every work week is devoted to Yuletide in some way or another.”

With a world-class collection of furnishings and decorative arts to work with, the exhibition strives to recreate the elegant holidays of the past. There is always some emphasis on how Henry Francis du Pont and his family marked Christmas in what was once their home, but the exhibition has grown to be much more spectacular than any real family party would have been.

“We have some displays that are centered on the du Pont family, we have some displays that are centered on the collection to interpret how people historically celebrated Christmas, and then we have some displays that are just purely decorative – some of the Christmas trees, for instance,” Harper said. “We have people who come here for different reasons. Some are really history buffs, and they want to know about that early American component. Some people are coming to see a wealthy man's home, and they want to see how his family celebrated Christmas. And some people just want decorating ideas. So we try to hit all three.

“So yes, the du Ponts were always here for Christmas. Did they decorate one room after another? No, of course not,” Harper said. “Their celebration was scattered throughout the house.”

The trick each year is to give Winterthur visitors the favorites they remember, while adding something new and special, Harper said. “There's always a part that's new, and a certain part that's repeated,” she said. “One thing seen every year is the dried flower tree. It originated in 1985, out in the Conservatory. But the Conservatory was not a great environment for a dried flower tree, because it was too humid. So over the past 10 years, we've had the tree inside, in one of the rooms. This year, because it's the 30th anniversary, we're putting it back in the Conservatory.

“It's prepared throughout the entire year,” Harper explained. “We start with the earliest spring bulbs that are blooming. We work all year to dry the flowers. Of course, when you take the flowers off the tree, they shatter. So we have to start over again every spring.”

This year, the Courtyard area on the Yuletide tour will spotlight Winty, a new snowman created by the museum staff, based on snowmen of the past.

Having researched every nook and cranny of Christmas celebrations for three decades, Harper has an extensive knowledge of how families marked the holidays in centuries past. And if she doesn't know right away, she can find the information.

“There's a lot of misunderstandings,” she said. “People will ask how they decorated in the 18th century, and the answer is that they didn't. Decorating for Christmas is a 20th-century thing. It went on a little bit, in certain settings, but primarily if there was any decorating going on, it was because people were having a dinner and they would set a beautiful table. E

“Even the Christmas tree, when it was first introduced in this country in the 19th century, wasn't a decoration. It was an event,” Harper said. “I often equate it to a pinata. It's this great, colorful thing and the children come in, and it's holding all their presents and candy and apples. The children would tear it apart, and you'd be done with it. It wasn't a decoration that you kept up for days or weeks. The idea of decorating for Christmas and leaving the decorations up, whether somebody's coming over for a party or not – that's a 20th century concept.”

At Winterthur, set-up for Yuletide begins on the Monday after the Delaware Antiques Show, which Winterthur sponsors. It is an all-hands-on-deck situation for about 60 people, Harper said. Putting things in place takes three days. “Every department is involved, to a greater or lesser extent,” she said. “Some rooms are completely emptied and we bring in different furniture. Other rooms keep the furniture that's there and we add some decorative elements to it. And every year, the lighting has to change,” since rooms have to be spotlighted in different ways each year.

Decorated trees go up after the rooms are finished, along with outdoor decorations. Interpreters are trained in the specifics of each room so they can give tours. The 2015 display features some items loaned by the Delaware Museum of Natural History. “Mr. DuPont got started as a kid by collecting rocks and shells and bird's eggs, and we wanted to spotlight that,” Harper said. “And we don't have those kinds of things here, so we got them from the museum.”

Sometimes, finding just the right item for Yuletide requires a bit of sleuthing.

“For things that we don't have, we put out a call to the staff and say, 'Who has circa 1920 cocktail shakers?' or what have you,” Harper said. “They bring them in and we choose. We do that kind of borrowing to flesh out the displays.”

Then there's the delicious-looking fake food put out on the tables each year. There are companies that specialize in creating things like plastic cookies or roast turkeys that are historically accurate. One of the concerns, Harper said, is the composition of the items.

“When we're making or acquiring the food, we have a process called off-gassing,” she said. “These things are made of artificial materials. We're only allowed to use museum-safe materials. When we get something new, we have to take it over to Conservation so they can look at the component materials to make sure they are safe in a collection environment. If you get something plastic and you open it and get this odor of plastic, that's off-gassing. We get the things well in advance, and we put them out for months, just sitting someplace. We put out dishes of candy and we have to put out signs for the staff, saying, 'Don't eat the candy – It's not real, it's just off-gassing!'” she said, laughing.

And some visitors can be sticklers.

“We find people who are experts in absolutely everything,” Harper said. “A number of years ago, we put some apples out in a display. We got a letter back because the apples were Delicious apples, and they had not been propagated at the time period the display was supposed to represent. Well, they were right. We'd never thought about it.

“But I always tell people, whether we're doing the du Ponts in their home, or doing something from the 1780s, it's an interpretation. I would be the last to tell you, 'This is what it was like, and you are stepping into the past and seeing something that's exactly the way it was.' It's not. We're taking elements, and it's well-researched, but this is our interpretation of it.”

Harper will visit Yuletide throughout its run to gauge what's working and what needs tweaking. And she'll jump in as a guide as well, to see first-hand what visitors respond to, or what they have questions about.

“We have people who have come for decades,” she said. “A couple of years ago, I was walking through the Yuletide tour and a guide was coming along with her group, and introduced me to a woman and her adult daughter. The daughter said, 'Twenty-five years. Every single year. Mom likes getting together with the family on Dec. 25, but her Christmas is to come and see Yuletide at Winterthur.' For some people, it's part of their tradition. It's what they do every year.”

Yuletide started in the mid-1970s as a small, members-only event, but it sold out so quickly that it was clear people wanted more. Each year, it's gotten bigger and more spectacular. It's been a regular public tour since 1977.

“People often say, 'You must get sick of Christmas,'” Harper said with a smile. “But I really don't. I do know museum professionals who don't celebrate privately anymore because they are so overwhelmed by it in their museum. That's unfortunate. People need to make a distinction between their job and their private life. Yuletide at Winterthur is my job. My personal Christmas has nothing to do with that. They don't overlap.”

Harper's daughters – now 19 and 22 – grew up with Yuletide and still volunteer at the museum. Her husband is an accountant and doesn't get too involved each year, she said, which gives them a chance to talk about something besides Yuletide at home.

Harper is quick to credit the designers and teams under her guidance, and she's happy to let people take an idea and run with it. “It's lovely to be able to turn things over to people,” she said, “because I know it's going to be absolutely fabulous, and I don't need to see it in advance. That's what makes it fun for me. I get to be surprised.

“My feedback is being down in the reception area as people are coming off the tour and seeing the smiles on their faces,” she said. “I like to see how it's working and what the responses are.”

During all her years of working at Winterthur, Harper said there are still a few areas of the sprawling house and grounds that she hasn't seen. “I've been over most of the property, just traipsing through the fields, but my supervisor was telling me that you can go underneath the bath houses that are right by the swimming pool. I've never been there!” she said, laughing.

“But I have to say, when I'm walking the 10 minutes down the drive each morning to the museum, it's an astonishing thing to work in a place where going from your car to the office is a restorative experience. It's just remarkable. I never get tired of it.”

To contact Staff Writer John Chambless, email [email protected].

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