Even though Ashley Sims is in charge of planning holiday events at Allerton Park and Retreat Center this year, she can’t help but feel some Christmas spirit every time she strolls around the sprawling, former estate of Robert Allerton.
“The other day I walked out and I saw the lights, and my heart fluttered a little. It gets you excited about what’s going on,” commented Sims, who is the Allerton Event Coordinator. “Whenever I walk around, it evokes a feeling.”
Holiday lights are a big part of the winter magic that began in 2014 when the park brought back the Holiday Showcase within the 1900 mansion, which along with the surrounding 1,500 acres was donated to the University of Illinois in 1946.
The showcase, dormant for eight years after a popular run in the early 2000s, gave people a reason to visit the park in the winter. With a little snow on the ground it can be a beautiful scene, but a little more difficult to get people to leave the warmth of their homes.
“People enjoy being at Allerton in the winter months, but they do need an invitation,” said Allerton Director Derek Peterson. “It’s not like you happen to wake up and say ‘this is the day I want to go to Allerton.’ But if you have an invitation and something to do once you get out here, people are responding.”
There has already been a Sweets With Santa, and the Allerton holiday season officially kicks off with the Showcase Dec. 13-15. Opening night also features the start of the nightly Kirby Winter Wellness Walk, which has added lights and displays throughout the mansion and Formal Garden areas over the past five years.
“This year we’re focusing on adding to the Brick Wall Garden,” said Sims. “There’s going to be a dome in that area that is decorated, and we’ll do projections there. We’ve also added lights to the Winter Garden, and the dark area (the trail between the back of the Fu Dog Garden and parking lot) has a few more surprises in it.”
The Visitor’s Center will also feature model trains on display from the Monticello Railway Museum, and the Greenhouse Cafe will serve warm beverages for light show enthusiasts.
The Showcase has also changed since returning. It is now vendor driven, instead of the previous format that featured interior decorators adopting rooms and decorating them for Christmas.
“The previous Showcase was really popular, but a lot of work for the staff, so when it went on hiatus and came back, we reevaluated it. We wanted to open the doors back up, but we didn’t want it to be the same,” added Peterson.
About 1,200 people showed up to take part in mansion-related activities when it returned in 2014, so that was used as a base for other activities to be added. Those include the Wellness Walk, wreath-making workshops, the Holiday Affair Dinner, mansion tours and the outdoor Feast of Juul on Dec. 21, which uses a bonfire and lighting of the Juul log to celebrate the winter solstice.
Last year’s total attendance was estimated at closer to 10,000 people, including outdoor walkers.
“The holidays at Allerton are a magical experience like no other,” said Sims.
Dec. 5: 6 p.m. — Showing of “Polar Express” in the mansion
Dec. 10: 6 to 8 p.m. — Wreath Making Workshop in the mansion
Dec. 11: 4:30 to 6:30 p.m. — Wreath Making Workshop in the mansion
Dec. 13: 5 to 9 p.m. — Holiday Showcase; Kirby Wellness Walk outdoors (tickets required for opening night)
Dec. 14-15: 10 a.m. to 4 p.m. — Holiday Showcase
Dec. 14-Jan. 5: 5 to 9 p.m. — Kirby Wellness Walk outdoors (no tickets required)
Dec. 17 and 19: 5 to 8 p.m. — Mansion tours
Dec. 21: 5 to 8 p.m. — Feast of Juul
Dec. 31: 7 p.m. to 1 a.m. — New Year’s Eve Celebration
Tickets are required for most events, and are available at www.allerton.edu.