“Christmas was so much like another, in those years around the sea-town corner now and out of all sound except the distant speaking of the voices I sometimes hear a moment before sleep, that I can never remember whether it snowed for six days and six nights when I was twelve or whether it snowed for twelve days and twelve nights when I was six.”
The opening lines to Dylan Thomas’ “A Child’s Christmas in Wales” sets the stage for his Victorian holiday tale, as he touches on the nostalgia of Christmas past. Just as Thomas creates a world of snowy imagery that triggers emotions of childhood wonder, “Holidays at Highfield” transports visitors to another time. While Thomas’ prose might not be the first work that comes to mind when thinking of the holidays, it is precisely the singularity of this piece, its flawless grasp on the nostalgic serenity of winter and the nuances of family life during the holidays, that makes it the inspiration for this year’s event. When visitors step into Highfield Hall & Gardens in Falmouth this holiday season, this is the world they will experience.
The ever-creative and inventive Highfield staff decided five years ago to take a step away from the traditional and create immersive experiences that capture the spirit of the holiday season in a way that is uniquely reflective of the passion at the core of this unique institution. Each of the five years have seen whimsical and awe-inspiring adaptations of the historic property, from an elegant estate to imaginative fantasies. “Our goal this year is to transform the house in a way that is unexpected of what you might normally think a Victorian house at Christmas would look like,” says Annie Dean, director of programs and exhibitions at Highfield. “We want visitors to walk in and say, ‘I’ve never seen anything like that before.’”
Built by the Beebe family in 1878, Highfield Hall has endured many different owners and served many different purposes—including the location of a hotel and a training site for theater students in the old family stables, repurposed today as Highfield Theatre. In 1962 the property was saved from development, but it would still be two decades before the home was restored to the impeccable state it’s in today.
Highfield is a community treasure, and an afternoon spent walking the grounds or exploring the historic house makes it clear why this spectacular property has been a perfect location for an annual holiday fundraiser event since its opening in 2006. The gardens and surrounding 400 acres are both stunning and inviting, and the home has an unexpected modern flare, making it all the more interesting. “We are a historic house museum, but that is not our point of view,” says Dean. “Our point of view is to do things that aren’t being done elsewhere. When you walk in here, you don’t feel like you’re walking into an old house.”
The Highfield staff credits local designer Sandra Cavallo and her visionary nature for the unique creativity of the holiday events, this year being no exception. “Sandra brings this point of view that is very different from what we have done before,” says Dean. When the project is complete, Cavallo likes to visit Highfield with her two children in the midst of the event, incognito, wearing a ski cap, and eavesdropping as visitors react to her work.
Lee Geishecker of VagabondView Photography in Falmouth has also been an integral part of the transformation of this event over the years. She credits the success to the team’s collaboration. “My role is helping the team transform what’s in Sandra’s mind to something that we can create in reality,” says Geishecker. The dedication of this team of professionals and volunteers is obvious—from trips to Vermont to pick up the perfect chairs to fit a design, to weeks of volunteer work—and their commitment to fluid and, above all, progressive design becomes clear with their successful creations.
Last year’s theme was “Winter Wonderland,” where visitors were greeted by a dramatic fake birch tree gracing the entrance hall. Another year, the theme was “Holidays Around the World,” which saw the dining room converted into a French bistro, the billiard room transfromed into an English tea shoppe, and upstairs a child’s bedroom plucked from the mountains of Germany beguiled the public. Geishecker says the team continues to grow every year and members of the community are excited to get involved in this project. It’s all “for the love of creation and the belief in Sandra as a visionary,” she says.
“It was snowing. It was always snowing at Christmas.”
This year, from the moment people enter the doors of the grand old home, they will find themselves in a snowy wonderland, as the foyer is transformed into an outdoor scene from Thomas’ childhood memories. Moving into the dining room, set for celebration, the coziness found during the holidays will be immediately evident as the frosted windows reveal a glimpse of snow-covered trees.
“We ran down the garden, with the snowballs in our arms, toward the house; and smoke, indeed, was pouring out of the dining-room, and the gong was bombilating, and Mrs. Prothero was announcing ruin like a town crier in Pompeii.”
The fantasy continues as visitors follow the grand staircase of Highfield Hall up past fire hoses and fireman boots to find themselves immersed in Thomas’ portrayal of this dramatic scene as it is played out on the landing of the stairs, post-fire. However, literary degrees are not a prerequisite to thoroughly enjoying the holiday festivities at Highfield. As Geishecker puts it, “It’s not imperative that you be familiar with ‘A Child’s Christmas in Wales,’ because when you walk into the house, you’re going to be introduced to Dylan Thomas and the story he’s created.”
“Our snow was not only shaken from white wash buckets down the sky, it came shawling out of the ground and swam and drifted out of the arms and hands and bodies of the trees; snow grew overnight on the roofs of the houses like a pure and grandfather moss, minutely—ivied the walls and settled on the postman, opening the gate, like a dumb, numb thunder-storm of white, torn Christmas cards.”
As if the fire scene was not accomplishment enough, Highfield will pay tribute to Thomas’ vivid depictions of snow by transforming the upstairs portion of the house into a giant snow globe that is experienced from the inside out.
Bill Hendel, the late owner of Uncle Bill’s Country Store in North Falmouth and loyal patron of Highfield Hall, bequeathed a large dollhouse to the museum that is a replica of his own historic house in West Falmouth. Holidays at Highfield incorporates a personal element each year, and this year it will be the dollhouse, in the center of the snow globe room, surrounded by puffy balls of snow suspended in the air.
“People start to get tense about the holidays around Thanksgiving, and with this event, you can step away from all that craziness and see something you’ve never seen before. It’s an escape,” says Geishecker. “There are vignettes with creative ideas all over the house to get people inspired. We think about the traditional way that people present things and then make something original.”
Holidays at Highfield, open from November 24 to December 3, is one of the more unique and memorable experiences during the holiday season, and one that ensures that even when the many winters before and after this melt together, the memories will evoke a sense of joy and wonder. Perhaps no one understood this feeling better than Thomas, writing,
“All the Christmases roll down toward the two-tongued sea, like a cold and headlong moon bundling down the sky that was our street; and they stop at the rim of the ice-edged fish-freezing waves, and I plunge my hands in the snow and bring out whatever I can find. In goes my hand into that wool-white bell-tongued ball of holidays resting at the rim of the carol-singing sea…”