At home, there has always been a gap in the Christmas Day activities between mid-morning, after everyone has exchanged presents and has had breakfast, and late afternoon as relatives began to gather for Christmas dinner. Over the years, more activities—church services and the gift exchanges—have shifted to Christmas Eve, making that the important time and leaving Christmas Day almost as an afterthought.
So this year, I volunteered for the Christmas morning shift of 10:00 to 1:30 at Longwood Gardens. What better way to express the Christmas spirit than helping others enjoy the day? Longwood is famous for their Christmas lights, but I recommend visiting on Christmas Day. Come early, as close to the 9 am opening as you can, and enjoy this year’s display that is much more than just the outdoor lights.
The day is a joy from the moment I leave my driveway in the cold, bright morning sun. The constant flow of traffic and the pre-Christmas pressure has suddenly switched off, and I am almost alone on the rolling, rural back roads of Pennsylvania and Delaware. We few drivers feel privileged to be out, and we wave to each other as we pass. The belted cows and woolly sheep are already in the fields, barely moving except for puffs of their crystallized breath visible in the cold sunlight. I drive slowly along Kennett Pike, passing through the long morning shadows of the small towns of Centerville, Mendenhall, and Fairville, their touristy shops and galleries are now deserted and looking like antique postcards. An occasional local jogger bundled up against the cold in tights and ear muffs waves in greeting. Even pretty girls with knit caps and bouncing ponytails wave on this bright and frosty Christmas morning.
I turn into Longwood’s business entrance on Conservatory Road. I arrive early to enjoy the peaceful quiet in the Conservatory before I am to greet the visitors. The guard, barely visible behind the darkened guardhouse window, sees the parking sticker on my rear view mirror, opens the gate and waves as I drive through. The normal employee’s parking lot will be used for overflow visitor’s parking later in the day, so I park in a designated large, empty space by the production greenhouses behind the Main Conservatory. Even these areas that are only seen by the staff are tastefully landscaped. I stop to examine the trunk of a lacebark pine, and enter the Conservatory by a small side door. The hush of warmth and fragrance hits with a spiritual presence. I feel I am entering a cathedral through a choir door.
I always enjoy Longwood as it first opens. Only a handful of visitors are there, mostly young parents pushing strollers, adjusting to their baby’s schedule. Some are puzzling over a map, and I stop to recommend the most impressive things to see. A gardener is hurriedly gathering up her tools, the hanging plants still dripping water. The employees who supplement the volunteers are moving to their stations. Most are part-time retirees that I know well, and we greet each other with a “Merry Christmas!” and comment on the fine weather.
As I leave the Conservatory on my way to my station at the Peirce-du Pont House, I pass more visitors just arriving. They glance my way, hesitating to say anything, but quickly respond to my greeting. Since I wear a fedora, I tip my hat to the ladies, and they are delighted, young and old. Many probably think I am hired entertainment in costume, but this is my normal apparel and manner. As I approach the House, I meet Belin, the resident cat, walking toward me. I also tip my hat to him as he passes by, but he ignores me. He knows I never feed him, making me unworthy of his recognition. “And a very merry Christmas to you, too, Sir,” I laugh as I continue on to the House.