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Historic Houses to Visit in December

by Barbara Rogers

Dec 13, 2023

© Lei Xu | Dreamstime.com

Destinations / North America

Restored historic houses let us step back into another era and see how families celebrated the holidays in the past. Look for local museum houses with special holiday openings when they bring out vintage and antique decorations and feature traditions from Christmases past. Or travel to these historic homes famed for their Christmas displays.


Nemours, a duPont mansion in Delaware’s Brandywine Valley seems more like a royal palace than an American country house, and never does its gold and crystal glitter more brightly than in December. The family’s own holiday decorations, supplemented by evergreen boughs and masses of poinsettias, turn the 77-room Nemours into a Christmas wonderland.


Christmas was clearly a big event here, with tall, lavishly decorated trees in each room; ornaments are a mix of exquisite treasures, family trinkets and treasured childhood toys, making the trees more personal. The decorations show how the family celebrated and entertained, and visitors can almost picture themselves in 1920’s finery, socializing with the guests.


Not far from Nemours, another duPont mansion offers a different holiday experience. Winterthur was not just a country estate, but also a museum for one of the world’s premier collections of American furniture and decorative arts. More about historical preservation and fine craftsmanship than glitz and splendor, room after room is furnished in priceless antiques and blended artfully throughout are Christmas decorations and stories of how the family celebrated their holidays here. The highlight is a gigantic Christmas tree decorated entirely in dried flowers and plants grown in the estate’s gardens.


Another group of palatial homes famed for Christmas displays are the Gilded Age mansions of Newport, Rhode Island. As each hostess strived to outdo her neighboring mansions, Christmas made these showplaces even more over-the-top. Three of them — The Breakers, Marble House and The Elms — are open for tours.


Of course, Mrs. Vanderbilt’s cliffside palace outshines them all. Christmas trees in each room are decorated in themes to match the décor, and the 15-foot-tall poinsettia tree in the Great Hall is made of 150 poinsettia plants. On some evenings, the 13 acres of grounds are aglow with colored holiday lights.


While these lavish estates of the uber rich have holiday décor to match their own opulence, you can get a less embellished view of past holidays at places like Colonial Williamsburg, where houses are decorated in the simpler, timeless 18th-century styles.


For a look at how an exuberant Victorian family celebrated, go to Mark Twain House & Museum in Hartford, Connecticut, where the author of Tom Sawyer created a whimsical world for his children. Outside of Boston, Eustis Estate gives another look at a Victorian Christmas, and farther west, visit Denver’s Molly Brown House.


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