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Brandywine Valley sites include Wyeth and du Pont locales

Winterthur's dried-flower tree, a yuletide tradition for years.
Winterthur's dried-flower tree, a yuletide tradition for years. (Winterthur)

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By Robert DiGiacomo
Wednesday, December 9, 2009

If your personal finances don't allow for much more than a wreath and a tree this holiday season, not to worry: The du Ponts have you covered.

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The family's former estates in Delaware's Brandywine Valley -- Winterthur, Nemours and Eleutherian Mills -- have decked their halls, as well as their living rooms, dining rooms and conservatories, with major seasonal finery. And the du Pont-backed Longwood Gardens offers an indoor winter wonderland on steroids with miles of white lights, a 28-foot decorated Douglas fir and thousands of plants showing off red, white and pink blooms.

Meanwhile, another storied family associated with the region -- the Wyeths, as in artists N.C., Andrew and Jamie -- offers a more homespun holiday display at the Brandywine River Museum in nearby Chadds Ford, Pa.

It all adds up to much vicarious fun, and you don't have to foot what must be a killer electricity bill.

Christmas is a really big deal at Winterthur Museum and Country Estate, where the yuletide tour depicts 120 years of du Pont family traditions. I was glad to have a guide to negotiate about a dozen of this house-museum's maze of 175 rooms and put the collection of early American furniture and collectibles into context.

The main focus is on the house's last occupant, Henry Francis du Pont, an avid collector who retrofitted his family home in the early 20th century to incorporate entire interiors from historic buildings in Philadelphia and elsewhere. Henry, who died in 1969, also loved a good party, according to my guide, and unlike many married men of his or any other generation, he ran the show when it came to entertaining.

Christmas Eve dinner, for example, started with a full course of caviar served in one salon before guests repaired to a dining room bedecked with white orchids. Here, they would dine on terrapin soup, roast pheasant and rum-plum pudding.

On Christmas, the family would give presents to staff members and their families, including toys that Henry hand-selected at a John Wanamaker department store, before gathering in the cozy Marlboro Room, where each du Pont's wrapped gifts would be piled in simple straw baskets.

For another chapter of the du Pont family history, I headed to Nemours Mansion and Gardens, the lavish house built by Alfred I. du Pont, a cousin of Henry's, in 1910. Unlike the more restrained Winterthur, Nemours is a 77-room showplace trimmed out in 23-karat gold leaf that tries to out-Versailles Versailles, its inspiration.

Here, the Christmas dinner table is set with Czechoslovakian china and German glassware under a massive crystal chandelier that once hung at Schoenbrunn Palace in Vienna, where Marie Antoinette spent much of her childhood. Not much is known about how Alfred or his wives (his third, Jessie Ball du Pont, lived at Nemours for nearly 50 years) celebrated Christmas. But my guide was able to recount how the estate's workers and their children would gather near the 12-foot tree in the marble-floored central hall for punch and oranges for the kids at 9 a.m. on Christmas. At some point, guests might have repaired to the music room, where Alfred, a pianist and composer, might have shared one of his latest works on his custom Steinway.

I'm just glad I'm not being tabbed for the upkeep: The mansion and its formal gardens recently underwent a three-year, $39 million restoration.

The story of the du Ponts, who immigrated to the United States from their native France in 1800, isn't complete without a visit to Hagley Museum and Library. The 235-acre site on the banks of the Brandywine River is where the family began to build its fortune, when E.I. du Pont launched a gunpowder works, the forerunner of the modern-day chemical conglomerate, in 1802.

Set on a steep hillside is the family's 19th-century home, Eleutherian Mills. The stately mansion's public rooms are furnished in a Colonial Revival style chosen by Louise du Pont Crowninshield, Henry's sister and the house's owner from 1921 until 1958. Here, the seasonal display offers an interpretation of how earlier generations of the family, who lived there from 1802 to 1891, celebrated the holidays.

According to the tour, the 19th-century du Ponts didn't make much of a fuss on Christmas but focused instead on Twelfth Night, the last of the 12 days of Christmas and a day when Europeans would celebrate by crowning the person who found a bean in a special cake. In the morning room, wrapped packages awaited visitors for New Year's calling, a tradition during which gentlemen would call on society ladies.

A similarly low-key approach to Christmas is the modus operandi at the Brandywine River Museum. I got a kick out of the O-gauge model railroad, which boasts about 2,000 feet of track. A collection of Victorian dolls, donated by Ann Wyeth McCoy, Andrew Wyeth's older sister, should be the envy of any American Girl aficionada.

There's nothing small about the Christmas display at Longwood Gardens, which was founded by Pierre S. du Pont, another cousin of Henry's and Alfred's. The conservatory is awash in poinsettias, complemented by amaryllis, cyclamens, narcissus and tulips, all in full bloom. The ballroom, home to a 10,010-pipe organ, offers caroling as well as choral and bell choir performances, while an outdoor skating rink features Olympic-caliber performers.

Be sure to stick around (or time your arrival for) after dark. That's when the switch is flipped on more than a half-million red, green, blue and purple outdoor lights. It's also the best time to catch the "dancing" musical fountain show, which, trust me, is way better than your dancing fountain show at home.

Having had my (brief) time with the du Ponts and their ilk, I think I'll put my Charlie Brown tree in the conservatory this year.

DiGiacomo is a Philadelphia-based writer and co-editor of TheCityTraveler.com.

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