A Vintage Yuletide

Christy David, 9, plays in a giant bird's nest in Winterthur's Enchanted Woods play space in Delaware.
Christy David, 9, plays in a giant bird's nest in Winterthur's Enchanted Woods play space in Delaware. (By Christopher T. David)
By Mary Quattlebaum
Special to The Washington Post
Friday, November 23, 2007

Look for animal figures and old-fashioned toys among the holiday greens as Winterthur Museum & Country Estate in Delaware opens its yuletide season Friday. The decorations and holiday tours are inspired by two new exhibits geared toward families: "K Is for Kids," an exhibit of decorative art objects based on the alphabet, and "Pets in America: The Story of Our Lives With Animals at Home."

"We wanted to make this year's tour especially child-focused," says Debbie Harper, curator of education at the museum, which is about a two-hour drive from Washington. In addition to drawing from exhibit themes, the 18 decorated rooms "evoke how children experienced the holidays" in the past three centuries in America, she says.

The 45-minute yuletide tour, which runs through Jan. 6, takes you inside the mansion of the late Henry Francis du Pont and features the re-creation of an 18th-century Moravian pyramid, a sort of tabletop Christmas tree hung with evergreens, apples and proverbs on notecards, and a lavish 19th-century "web" of ribbons connecting the gifts of individual family members. In the Chinese parlor, vintage holiday cards, red roses and presents wrapped in cellophane provide festive touches enjoyed by the du Pont family in the 1940s. The museum brings things up to date by offering breakfast with Santa on Dec. 8, 15 and 22 (advance tickets required).

"It was especially fun to decorate with the pet exhibit in mind since so many people are drawn to animals," Harper says. A display re-creates the small Christmas tree fashioned by Archie Roosevelt, the 8-year-old son of President Theodore Roosevelt, for the family pets in 1902. Families also can stroll in the conservatory among live songbirds, lush poinsettia and topiary animals including a dog, cat, monkey and swan.

There's even a red Christmas stocking from 1948 for a Labrador puppy in the pet exhibit. On view through Jan. 20, the traveling exhibit explores the history of pets in America from the 1700s to the present. A Colonial portrait of a girl and her dog (1735); a bird cage shaped like a New England church (1791); 19th- and early-20th-century photos of kids with their kittens, puppies and chickens; and a Lassie lunchbox (1978) all pay tribute to the growing popularity of pets.

"The exhibit is naturally interactive and multi-generational," says Mary Jane Taylor, another curator of education. "People of all ages like to remember their pets and talk about them." The more than 200 objects, including aquarium ornaments from the 1950s and rhinestone-studded poodle collars from the 1960s, should bring back memories and inspire questions and stories, Taylor says. A "post your pet" activity invites visitors to bring photos of pets from home or to use the materials provided to draw a picture or write a story for display.

Pets even have a presence in "K Is for Kids," an exhibit through July 13 that uses an alphabet theme to reinforce literacy skills and introduce children to early American history. The display for each letter includes a historical object, playful poem and descriptive label.

"We wanted to include elements and objects that would engage people of different ages and interests," says Lois Stoehr, exhibit curator. Parents can read the rhymes aloud to children; older kids and adults can learn about each object's function and history from the labels, she says.

On a recent visit, my family lingered over the letter "A," which featured a 19th-century aquarium shaped like a mansion. We admired an 1806 personalized dog bowl displayed for "L" (the "letters that spell Old Rover's name"). "U is for Underwear" drew a giggle from my daughter, Christy, 9, then a protest -- "That's not fair!" -- when she discovered that 18th-century girls, but not boys, were required to wear restricting stays.

Two preschoolers skipped from one letter to the next as their mother read the poems aloud. They pointed excitedly at the leather fire bucket for "F" and zoo animals made from spools for "Z" before curling up with children's books in a cozy reading room.

The museum also brings some of the beauty of its extensive gardens indoors for the holidays. One tree is decorated with dried roses, heather and other flowers from the estate. Another, hung with silk flowers and colored lights, hints at the snowdrops, blue stars and daffodils to come in spring.

Kids eager to romp outdoors can visit Enchanted Woods, the museum's play space, with its fairy cottage, troll bridge and acorn tearoom. In this magical setting, youngsters might pretend to be woodland sprites or even holiday elves.

Winterthur Museum & Country Estate 5105 Kennett Pike, Winterthur, Del. Contact:800-448-3883 or 302-888-4600. http://www.winterthur.org. Hours: Open Tuesday-Sunday from 10 to 5. Additional yuletide hours through Jan. 6: Mondays from 10 to 5; Tuesdays 10 to 8. Yuletide tours offered regularly. Admission: Yuletide tours are $20, ages 2 to 11 $10, younger than 2 free, members $5, seniors and students $18. Includes "K Is for Kids" and "Pets in America" exhibits. Tickets can be purchased online or by calling 800-448-3883. Reservations are recommended; availability is limited. Buffet breakfast with Santa:$25, ages 1 to 12 $15, members $18. Reservations required; call 800-448-3883 or 302-888-4600.

© 2007 The Washington Post Company