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Every December, the Brandywine River Museum of Art transforms into an old-fashioned winter wonderland, faithfully delivering the holiday spirit to children of all ages. Without fail, at the end of every fall, the Christmas spirit comes chugging around the track -heading straight for Delco -and pulling into the station at Brandywine River Museum of Art’s Brandywine Christmas.
“We go every year, a tradition that began when my high school senior was one-year-old and first fell in love with trains,” says Kristin Beeman Dunning of Wallingford. “For our family, it’s just not the holidays without a trip to see the trains at the Brandywine River Museum followed by an enormous breakfast at Hank’s.”
While the trains may be small (O-gauge model trains are significantly smaller than the real thing), the sense of nostalgia and wonder that the trains bring is not. With over 2,000 feet of track and hundreds of display pieces, this layout is a playground for the imagination.
“I’m not really into model trains, but their exhibit is worth the price of admission,” said Greg Caggiano of Holmdel, NJ. “It’s an incredible and fun display. It makes the museum pop and become fun for all ages and tastes.”
The trains have been a part of Brandywine Christmas since 1971. Both scale model and toy trains are included, including one car that features a camera to provide an engineer’s view through a mounted monitor. Some train “celebrities” –a.k.a. Thomas the Tank Engine and Friends –can often been seen in the expansive layout which also includes a town, a working train yard, model dairy, quarry, oil refinery, concrete plant and Herrs Food factory. And yes, even Santa and his sleigh fly over the busy scene.
“Our family joined Brandywine River Museum each year just so my son could see the trains,” says Leslie Womble Samaha, also of Wallingford. “We would go five to seven times every season and stay two to three hours per visit. The staff was amazing and walked my son through their on site train repairs while patiently answering all of his questions. He was mesmerized. Fond memories for me and him!”
Just as famous as the train display –perhaps even more so –is the grand collection of handmade, whimsical “critter” ornaments that appear every holiday season. The critters -made by volunteers from dried flowers, grasses, seeds, and pods -fill several themed Christmas trees within the museum. For many Delco families, it just wouldn’t be Christmas without admiring these natural little charmers who have been around since the early days of the museum when a group of volunteers decorated a small tree with natural materials to emphasize the museum’s role as part of the Brandywine Conservancy.
Those first ornaments were somewhat simple creations, but as the years have gone by, the critters have become more and more elaborate, eventually gaining national attention. In 1984, museum volunteers were asked to decorate the main Christmas tree in the Reagan White House. Critters have also been on display at the Smithsonian’s Museum of American History.
So exactly where do these critters come from? Every year, Brandywine Conservancy volunteers give Santa’s elves a run for their money as they gather to create the ornaments in a workshop on the conservancy campus. These dedicated critter creators work for over 30,000 hours in order to make approximately 10,000 ornaments –some for display, but most for the popular Annual Critter Sale, scheduled this year for Thursday, December 5 from 5-8 p.m., and Friday, December 6 through Sunday, December 8 from 9:30a.m.-4:30 p.m. (Following the sale, critters can be purchased at the Museum Shop with proceeds benefiting the Volunteers’ Art Purchase Fund.)So this year, if the Christmas spirit seems a little hard to find, come spend a few hours on the banks of the Brandywine. It could be hiding right around the bend of the track, being pulled along by a 12” locomotive. Or it might be hiding in the whimsy of a pine cone reindeer hanging on the tree. But it will most definitely be found in the memory created by spending a winter morning experiencing a Brandywine Christmas with someone you love.
Brandywine Christmas runs from November 29, 2019 through January 5, 2020. The museum is open daily, except for Thanksgiving Day and Christmas Day.
Blog cover image – Photo credit: Jacques-Jean Tiziou