BRISTOL, R.I. — As the sun sets and colors begin to drift across the sky, visitors walk along paths lit by copper lanterns. They linger under majestic old trees glittering with lights and hung with bamboo snowflake ornaments, admiring dozens of intricate, handmade flowers sprouting in clusters nearby. A bamboo grove becomes otherworldly, with 30-foot-tall stems lit with tiny lights hiding a holiday surprise.
For nearly two decades, the century-old Blithewold Mansion has played a lead role in the holiday season, attracting thousands of visitors to tour its rooms decorated for Christmas. The 33-acre grounds, stretching to the edge of Narragansett Bay, is a supporting player during the holidays, with bonfires and lighted trees close to the mansion serving to guide people inside.
The COVID-19 pandemic has forced everyone outside this season, like children with our faces pressed up against the windows, remembering celebrations in places where we can’t be together anymore.
The wintering landscape has always been here. But being forced to linger outside has opened people’s eyes to its beauty.
With the mansion itself closed to the public, the Blithewold estate turned its attention outward this season, illuminating more of its quiet gardens, groves and pathways and offering opportunities to explore.
They created something magical. Tickets for “Night Lights” have sold out almost every night, and it’s so popular that the season has been extended at least until Jan. 10. The staff also added a scavenger hunt for adults and children, and offer hot drinks and cocktails for sale on Wednesdays and Saturdays.
“I’ve never seen people be more sincerely grateful,” said Tree Callanan, Blithewold’s director of communications. “People say, ‘Thank you so much for doing this’ — it’s from the heart. They are honestly thankful.”
The idea came out of necessity: Christmas at Blithewold brings in as much business for the nonprofit as its “Daffodil Days” and the entire summer season, said Callanan.
“It’s a place we all love and care about,” Callanan said. “The mission was to educate and inspire, but we knew right away that we could do something that was going to help people through this time, [offer] some place beautiful where they would come.”
The attention is fitting, considering how the original owners loved and worked to develop the grounds.
This was the summer home of Augustus and Bessie Van Wickle, who bought the property in 1894. Bessie worked with landscape architect John DeWolf to plan the estate, and then she dug into the earth herself, working with gardeners.
Their daughter Marjorie Van Wickle Lyon was also an avid gardener, working nearly up until her death at the estate in 1976 at the age of 93. She left the estate to the Heritage Foundation of Rhode Island, now known as the Heritage Trust of Rhode Island, with an endowment for its upkeep.
The first-floor rooms of the mansion are decorated, but you can only see them by peeking through the windows.
The real show is outdoors, with the lights and ornaments handmade by the estate’s director of horticulture, using bamboo grown in the grove, leftover copper from when the mansion was re-roofed, and plexiglass that he shaped into decorations.
Fred Perry, who earned a degree in landscape architecture from the University of Rhode Island, said he’s lost count of all of the ornaments he’s made over his 20 years at the estate. He changes the designs each year, coming up with surprises for regular visitors.
With help from workers at Bartlett Tree Experts of Seekonk, Massachusetts, Perry hung the lights and ornaments throughout the grounds, greatly expanding previous displays. The thick bamboo grove became a lighted cave, with some of the bamboos stretched down in the middle over a Christmas tree, resembling an angel bowing its wings.
He hopes that visitors will also notice the bamboo flowers, small and delicate and carefully handmade, clustered in groups around the property.
Before the pandemic, Blithewold’s holiday season would end after New Year’s Day. But, with people looking for things to do outdoors, Callanan said they may continue to keep the estate open on weekends through the rest of the winter.
“It makes us all feel really good to provide that kind of opportunity for people,” she added.
“Night Lights” is open evenings through Jan. 10, from 4 to 8 p.m. Tickets for adults are $10, $5 for children, and members are free. Reservations required.