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Mansions of the Hudson Valley

by Kathryn Boughton

While dour New England wrestled with its Calvinist soul and forsook the homey pleasures of Christmas in the 1600s, the doughty Dutch saw no reason to be glum. They never turned their backs on Christmas and from the earliest settlement of New Amsterdam in 1624 continued to mark the season with merrymaking, fresh-cut greens to adorn their homes and gift giving.

Indeed, the Yuletide got pretty raucous in Dutch New York until efforts were undertaken to domesticate the holiday and turn it into the child-oriented celebration it is today. This movement, which emphasized Saint Nikolas, was given a substantial boost by the publication of the poem The Night Before Christmas in 1823 and later by Dickens’ A Christmas Carol in 1843.

Today, the traditions introduced by the Dutch (and Dickens) are the basis for the holiday in the United States. Nowhere can they be better observed than in the great mansions of the Hudson Valley, where the Dutch established their country demesnes. Dutchess County's great estates are dressing up in their holiday finery, reflecting periods ranging from the Revolutionary War to World War II. Six mansions, the nation's first Presidential Library and several Colonial homesteads offer open houses and tours for the holidays.

Perhaps the best-known of these is Springwood, birthplace and lifelong home to President Franklin Delano Roosevelt. Roosevelt, whose fifth great-grandfather came from Holland in 1649, was born just as the family-centric celebration of the holiday reached full flower. The patriarch of the country traditionally gathered his large brood around him on Christmas Eve and read - undoubtedly with great expression - Dicken’s classic, A Christmas Carol.

Visitors can see his mansion decorated according to Roosevelt family tradition. The National Historic Site, located on Route 9 in Hyde Park, offers tours of the decorated house from 9AM to 5PM, November 29th to December 31st; closed Christmas Day and New Year's Day. Admission is $18 for adults, free during the December 12th open house; 845.229.9115.

In keeping with FDR’s tradition of reading to his children, December 14th will also bring a Children's Book Festival from 9AM-5PM. Children's authors will read from and autograph their works from 1:30-4PM. Free photos can be taken with Santa from 1-3PM. and children can make holiday cards for servicemen and women serving on the USS Roosevelt from noon to 4PM. Free. 845.486.7745.

Nearby is Val-Kill, the home Eleanor Roosevelt created for herself. Her favorite holiday is recreated at the cozy cottage and tours are offered Thursday-Monday, November 29th through December 31st, except Christmas Day and New Year's Day. Visitors take a free shuttle from Wallace Visitor Center at the FDR Site, Route 9. Admission $10; free admission 4-7PM December 12th; 845.229.5302.

Nearby are other impressive historic sites that also deck their halls for the holiday season. FDR's cousin, Daisy Suckley's home, Wilderstein, is adorned by area florists and designers. Tours are self-guided with a docent in each room. The mansion, 330 Morton Road, Rhinebeck, is open Saturdays and Sundays, 1-4PM November 29th-December 29th. Admission, $10, $9 for seniors and students, free for children 12 and younger; 845.876.4818.

A Gilded Age Christmas can be had November 21st through December 31st at the Staatsburgh State Historic Site, Old Post Road. Guided tours of the Mills mansion reveal lavish rooms with turn-of-the century decorations. The mansion is open Thursday-Sunday, noon to 4PM. Admission is $10; $8 for seniors and groups; free for children 12 and younger; 845.889.8851.

The 25 rooms of the Italianate Locust Grove Villa, designed by AJ Davis, decorated with a “Twelve Days of Christmas” theme, is open November 30th, December 7th, 14th and 21st. Located in Poughkeepsie at 2361 Route 9, it is open 10AM-5PM. Admission is $10, $6 for those under 12. December 1st, 8th, 15th and 22nd there will be Holiday Hunts for children, 12-4PM; arrive by 3PM to complete the hunt; 845.454.4500, extension 17.

Christmas is about excess and there was no American excess like that of the Gilded Age. The Vanderbilts epitomized high style and their Hyde Park Mansion, 4097 Route 9, gives visitors a peek into the gilt-edged past. It is open November 29th-December 31st, 9AM-5PM except Christmas Day and New Year's Day, with a free open house December 6th. Visitors can dress in their finest clothes and pose for a holiday photo before the Mansion's Elliptical Hall Christmas tree. Gifts the Vanderbilts gave to townspeople are displayed. Admission $10; 845.229.7770.

Step back to the Revolutionary era at the Livingston Mansion, home of Revolutionary patriots, One Clermont Avenue, Germantown. On December 13th, 3–6PM there will be candlelight tours with Tableaux Vivant. There will be glittering decorations, wassail and traditional holiday goodies served in the historic kitchen. The mansion is regularly open 11AM-4PM. Admission, $10, free for children under 12 and members. Admission is free during the December 14th open house; 518.537.4240.