For his 13th birthday, Colvin Randall's parents took him to Longwood Gardens in Kennett Square for the first time. "I was captivated," he says.
Not just was - is.
Now 60, Randall has been working at Longwood for the last 33 years - doing public relations, serving as historian-in-residence, designing the musical fountain displays and fireworks shows, maintaining the musical instruments, playing the famous pipe organ for thousands of visitors, and, for the last four years, writing his sixth book about this former du Pont estate that draws almost 900,000 visitors a year.
Longwood Gardens Christmas is the definitive history of its most popular time of year, and the book is every bit as outsize as the place itself: 352 pages and 10 inches square, weighing almost 5 pounds.
Sounds like the kind of book only a Longwood junkie would go for, and that's true enough. But Randall's work is also a fascinating window into a vastly different time, when class divisions were sharp, yet workers felt only gratitude toward their immensely wealthy employer, and when holiday entertainment and gift-giving - everyday life, too - seemed an uncomplicated affair.
In the retelling, at least.
Randall drew upon newspaper accounts of Longwood's fabled Christmas parties for the children of employees; records kept by the estate's owners, Pierre S. and Alice B. du Pont; archives at the Hagley Museum and Library in Wilmington, site of the first du Pont powder works; and about 100 oral histories that Longwood began compiling decades ago.
Some were recorded in 1974 by Randall himself, as a student in the Longwood graduate program at the University of Delaware. And some can still be recounted by the people themselves.
Isaac "Ike" Evans Jr., for one.
His father worked at Longwood from 1919 to 1957 as orchard manager and assistant farm manager, and the family lived in a farmhouse on the 1,000-plus-acre estate. Now 86, Evans fondly recalls racing through the fields and woods with friends, making the rounds with his dad in a Longwood pickup truck (a blue Chevy), and many other adventures during a childhood spent at Longwood.
"It was wonderful," says Evans, who lives at the Friends Home, an assisted-living facility in Kennett.
Most wonderful were the Christmas parties, which the du Ponts hosted for more than two decades and which Randall chronicles in detail.
Dressed in their best outfits, the children and their parents went in the Conservatory's lower entrance and proceeded up the stairs to the Orangery, to be greeted in a receiving line - by name, sometimes with a secretary's prompting - by the du Ponts. The children were given shopping bags to hold the gifts they would accumulate, then guided into the Exhibition Hall for the party.
It was dark. In the center of the room was a huge, well-secured Christmas tree, its lower branches hung with toys the children could grab once the lights went on. Randall calls this "the tree shake"; Evans remembers it as "the toy scramble."
"I was always competitive. It was hard to wait for the lights," Evans says.
Besides the tree toys, which included paint sets, dime banks, footballs, and water pistols, each Longwood child received an article of clothing ordered by Alice du Pont just for them, such as a dress, knickers, a coat, or a hat, and a fairly expensive toy, such as a doll, scooter, sled, or wagon.
One of Evans' favorite presents was Robin Hood by Henry Gilbert, which he still has. "I've read it so often, the cover's coming loose," he says.
Then came the entertainment - could be jugglers, acrobats, ventriloquists, dogs dressed as Charlie Chaplin and Mae West, or "a musical chauffeur playing auto horns" - followed by ice cream, cookies, and balloons.
"I guess I was lucky to grow up in a place like that," says Evans, who is also thankful to the du Ponts for employing his father and "saving my family from the Great Depression."
Carlene Bausch Moscatt, a retired art teacher in Baltimore, still has her favorite du Pont Christmas gift, a set of English paper dolls.
Her mother, a poor Finnish immigrant, was Alice du Pont's "upstairs maid"; her father was a gardener. They met at Longwood and rented one of 127 tenant houses on the estate. (There are 46 today, including the one Randall lives in.)
Moscatt, 75, recounts preparations for the 1941 party, when she was 6: "My mother made me a beautiful navy blue velvet dress with lace collar, and she spent a lot of time making me sausage curls, like Shirley Temple. I wore a bracelet and ring my uncle gave me. It was very special and I remember it vividly," she says.
Moscatt recalls the du Ponts' being kindly. "My dad always said Mr. du Pont treated you very naturally and friendly, on an equal basis. Mr. du Pont was like that, very approachable and normal with his employees."
Her childhood, like Evans', is preserved in sepia tones. "In winter you could go ice-skating on the ponds. . . . Oh, it was really wonderful, like an idyllic childhood," Moscatt says.
So go the memories. "It was certainly a different time," Randall says, adding that the du Ponts paid "modest wages" and charged minimal rents; lent money for catastrophic medical expenses with no expectation of being repaid; and for Christmas gave out cash bonuses, as well as fresh turkeys, nuts, and fruit.
Du Pont was especially generous to his "favorite Longwood men." In addition to cash, they might receive golf balls, china, clocks, luggage, furniture, even cars. A frugal man, du Pont often advised his employees to save money and invest wisely.
"Pierre was not impressed at all with class distinction. He wanted people working for him to be competent," Randall says, acknowledging that there likely was a staff pecking order and "a few who complained under their breath."
"You can't have an organization without people like that," he says.
But there's no denying the du Ponts' wide-ranging generosity. They gave away more than a billion dollars, almost $3 billion today, to the causes they cared about.
The couple married late - he was 45 to her 43. As first cousins, they were forbidden to marry in Pennsylvania or Delaware, so Randall says they wed in Alice's brother's apartment in New York City in 1915.
Six years later, the Longwood children's parties began; they ended in 1942, during World War II. The festivities resumed in 1957, after both du Ponts' deaths. By then, Longwood had hired its first professional director, and the holiday displays were opened to the public.
In the years since, almost 7 million visitors have popped in to see the ever-grander indoor trees and floral displays, an outdoor light show featuring 500,000 LEDs strung on 75 trees, and entertainment as varied as carol-singing schoolchildren and scenes from The Nutcracker ballet.
"It amazes me how many people come here for Christmas," Randall says.
Maybe not so amazing that the largest holiday crowd, more than 300,000, came in 2001, when the horror of 9/11 was fresh and the weather unusually warm.
But that cannot explain it all, as evidenced by what happened during the crippling, snow-blowing winter of 2009, a time Longwood executive director Paul B. Redman only semi-jokingly refers to as "Snowmageddon."
Despite the weather, close to 221,000 visitors still came for Christmas.
"A Longwood Gardens Christmas" runs daily through Jan. 9, 9 a.m. to 9 p.m., with extended hours of 9 a.m. to 10 p.m. on Saturdays and from Sunday through Dec. 31. 1001 Longwood Rd. in Kennett Square.
Timed tickets, issued for half-hour intervals on specific dates, can be bought in person or online at www.longwoodgardens
.org. Phone sales (610-388-1000) carry a sales charge.
General admission prices: $18 for adults; $15 for seniors (age 62 and up); $8 for students (ages 5-18); free for children 4 and younger.
Colvin Randall's book Longwood Gardens Christmas may be purchased for $39.99 on the Longwood website or in the gift shop.
Take a video tour of Longwood Gardens' Christmas displays, http://go.philly.com/ LongwoodEndText
Read gardening writer Virginia A. Smith's blog at www.philly.com/philly/blogs