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Holidays on the Hudson

The bows, ribbons, scissors and brightly colored paper sit on a little bedroom table waiting for the First Lady to continue wrapping her Christmas presents. It’s a sentimental peek into the holiday preparations of Eleanor Roosevelt at Springwood, the lifelong home of Franklin D. Roosevelt in Hyde Park, about 5½ hours from Buffalo.

FDR’s Georgian Colonial-style house is one of many beautiful mansions decorated for Christmas along a scenic stretch of Route 9, adjacent to the Hudson River. The wealthy scions of New York society built these stately vacation retreats to get away from the congestion and chaos of city life. Now during the holiday season, visitors to these architectural gems can enjoy live events, special programs and unique tours.

FDR’s residence

A portrait of Franklin D. Roosevelt is framed by gifts and a tree with family ornaments at Springwood in Hyde Park.

"All that is within me cries out to go back to my home on the Hudson River," said FDR about his family homestead.

Springwood is now a national historic site with a lovely rose garden serving as the final resting place for the 32nd president and his wife, Eleanor. The house is decorated according to Roosevelt family traditions that span the years from 1882 to 1945. A beautiful tree with tinsel and garland is placed next to an oil painting of FDR. Fresh wreaths hang on the double-door entrance, and greens with red bows grace the staircase.

Presents in vintage wrapping paper are stacked on chairs and the flower-filled dining room table is dressed for Christmas dinner. During "FDR Home for the Holidays," free tours and refreshments are offered from 9:30 a.m. to 4 p.m. on Dec. 9.

Presidential library

Near FDR’s home on the same parklands campus is the Franklin D. Roosevelt Presidential Library and Museum. (It’s the only presidential library ever used by a sitting president.) The private museum is filled with interactive exhibits, audio-visual theaters and FDR artifacts. Note the original "Day of Infamy" speech with Roosevelt’s own corrections, his Oval Office desk and his 1936 Ford Phaeton with hand controls.

In the president’s actual study is the desk where he gave his famous "Fireside Chats" over the radio during World War II. To the right of the desk is a small tree decorated with colored globes and tinsel. A reprinted New York Times story said the study "reveals the president to be a person who loves Christmas." Blue stockings for Fala, FDR’s beloved Scottish Terrier, are hung over the fireplace. They are filled with bone-shaped toys and pet treats. The dog’s leash and blanket rest on a nearby chair. On a table sits a copy of Charles Dickens’ "A Christmas Carol," which the president read to his grandchildren on Christmas Eve. The book is one of many on display from his personal library of 22,000 volumes.

The library will hold a "Children’s Reading Festival" at 1:30 p.m. on Dec. 9. There will be free refreshments, photos with Santa and kids can make holiday cards for the crew of the USS Franklin and Eleanor Roosevelt missile destroyer. FDR’s library and Springwood offer an $18 joint admission ticket.

More historic sites

The tablescape at Val-Kill, Eleanor’s retirement retreat, is dressed with her holiday china and presents she picked out for family and friends.

Val-Kill was Eleanor’s woodland sanctuary, which she said was the place "where I used to find myself and grow." It was her main home from 1945 until she died in 1962. The Dutch Colonial fieldstone cottage was built in 1926 next to Val-Kill Pond on the Roosevelt Estate in Hyde Park. The home is the only national historic site established for an American First Lady.

Eleanor celebrated her favorite holiday there with her family. During December, a tree is set up in the living room and chairs are piled high with presents. Framed and hung on the knotty pine walls of the dining room are Christmas cards received by Eleanor. Other walls are covered with snapshots of visiting dignitaries like Winston Churchill, Nikita Khrushchev and Ethiopian Emperor Haile Selassie.

A free "Christmas Open House," with refreshments and guided tours is planned from 4 to 7:30 p.m. on Dec. 9.

Frederick Vanderbilt, third-generation millionaire, decorated his Hyde Park mansion to reflect the wealth and excess of the Gilded Age. All the furnishings remain virtually unchanged from the time the family lived there.

Vanderbilt Mansion is a neoclassical, Beaux Arts-style manse in Hyde Park built in 1899 by Frederick Vanderbilt. The third-generation millionaire furnished it to reflect the wealth and excess of the age.

The same "Gilded Age" swagger goes into the present-day decorations. Check out the Christmas trees and poinsettias in the Elliptical Hall. All the other furnishings remain virtually unchanged from the time the Vanderbilts lived there. One exhibit details gifts presented by Mrs. Louise Vanderbilt to her staff and children of the village. Mrs. Vanderbilt, who was childless, would sometimes deliver the presents personally on a red velvet sleigh. Along with the dazzling china and crystal collections on the dining room table, don’t miss the river view from the columned porch at the rear of the mansion.

A "Holiday Open House" offers extended hours from 10 a.m. to 8 p.m. on Dec. 3. Admission is free that day and includes cookies and punch at 11 a.m. and a free concert.

Wilderstein, a Queen Anne mansion in Rhinebeck, was the home of Margaret "Daisy" Suckley, FDR’s cousin and lifelong confidante. Daisy gave Fala to the president in 1940. Her papers include some of the only existing photos of FDR in his wheelchair that the president allowed her to take.

For more than 30 years, local florists and decorators have transformed the first floor into a magical wonderland. Self-guided tours are offered from 1 to 4 p.m. on Nov. 24-26 and Dec. 2, 3, 9, 10, 16, 17, 23, 26 and 27. Docents answer questions in each room. Cider and cookies are complimentary, the tour costs $11 for adults, $10 for students/seniors and kids under 12, free.

A fancy "Yuletide Tea" and mansion tour, costing $30 for adults and $20 for children, is scheduled at 1 p.m. Dec. 9. Don’t miss the stained glass pieces by J.B. Tiffany in the library and the five-story circular tower.

A children’s scavenger hunt for antique toys is held in December at Locust Grove, the home of Samuel F.B. Morse, inventor of the telegraph.

Locust Grove was the Poughkeepsie summer home of Samuel F.B. Morse, inventor of the telegraph, from 1847 to 1872. His Italianate-style villa sits on a bluff high above the Hudson, surrounded by 5 miles of hiking trails and 200 acres of gardens.

On Dec. 3, 10 and 17, the mansion holds a scavenger hunt for antique toys, games and crafts hidden in all 25 rooms. Admission is $8 for adults, kids under 6 are free.

"Sunset Sensations Wine and Food Event" at 5:30 p.m. on Dec. 7 and 14 includes chef-prepared foods from the estate’s gardens, wine pairings and a tour of lavish decorations. Tickets are $32 in advance and $35 on day of event.

Locust Grove’s original owner, Henry Livingston Jr., is believed by some scholars to be the true author of "Twas the Night Before Christmas," rather than Clement Moore.

Staatsburgh State Historic Site, also known as the Mills Mansion, was one of five homes owned by the Mills family. From early autumn to Christmas, Ogden and Ruth Livingston Mills entertained up to 80 guests at a time in their 65-room country home with 14 bathrooms and 23 fireplaces. Showcasing Beaux-Arts neoclassical styling, the house’s ornate trims, moldings and many of the fireplaces have been preserved.

"A Gilded Age Christmas" is offered from noon to 4 p.m. on Nov. 24, Dec. 22, 26 and 31. Huge trees are set up near the staircase, elegant floral arrangements overflow the mantels and colorful centerpieces adorn the dining room table. Look for hidden "Mistletoe Mouse Houses" with tiny Christmas trees. A craft workshop teaches children, aged 6 to 10, to create their own mouse houses. Reservations are required and tickets cost $8 per child or $15 for a family of three kids.

Costumed interpreters and live music highlight an evening tour at 6 p.m. on Dec. 15. "America’s Downton Abbey" is the focus of another talk, which costs $15 for adults and $13 for students and seniors.

Mount Gulian is a reconstructed 18th century Dutch manor house overlooking the Hudson in Beacon. The homestead belonged to the Verplanck family and is decorated to reflect Colonial and Victorian traditions. A wooden shoe near the front door holds a carrot and straw for St. Nick’s horse. The rustic fireplace is draped with fresh greens. The dining room is adorned with opulent Victorian décor and decorative pieces from the museum’s collection.

Each room is lit by candles and a "Candlelight Tour" is offered from 4 to 7 p.m. Dec. 17. Other holiday tours run from 1 to 4 p.m. Dec. 13, 14, 15, 19 and 20. A "Children’s Holiday Tea" sets out fine linen and china at noon on Dec. 28.

Sinterklaas parades

Drawing on the Hudson Valley’s Dutch heritage, the Sinterklaas Festivities are a celebration of the jolly gent (aka Santa Claus), who wears a tall bishop’s hat and red cape to deliver gifts to children.

On Nov. 25 after a full day of musical performances, children’s workshops and a procession, Sinterklaas and his white horse take a tugboat from Kingston across the Hudson to Rhinebeck.

The following Saturday on Dec. 2, he is greeted with a daylong fair of storytellers, magic acts, puppet shows and circus jugglers. Described as "one Who away from Whoville," the pageant ends with the Children’s Starlight Parade at 6 p.m. The fantasy includes giant walking puppets, fire-eaters, marching bands, children carrying illuminated stars and Sinterklaas on a white horse.

Christmas theater

To round out your Christmas experience, catch a show while you’re in town. Two different productions of Frank Capra’s "It’s a Wonderful Life" are being performed this year. One is a "live radio play" at the Clove Creek Dinner Theater in Fishkill from Nov. 19 to Dec. 17.

The second play takes place Dec. 1-17 at the Center for Performing Arts in Rhinebeck, which also produces "A Christmas Carol" Dec. 22-24.

The Bardavon 1869 Opera House in Poughkeepsie presents "The Nutcracker" by the New Paltz Ballet Theatre. Handel’s "Messiah" will also be performed there.

Places to stay

The Beekman Arms in Rhinebeck is America’s oldest continuously operating hotel. Oozing with colonial charm since 1766, the inn has a tavern where Chelsea Clinton planned her wedding. The adjacent Delamater Inn (circa 1844) is a cluster of seven Carpenter Gothic guest houses designed by Alexander Jackson Davis, one of America’s first architects.

The Rhinecliff is a small restored country hotel built on the banks of the Hudson in 1854. Rooms have porches overlooking the river and the hotel has restored wooden floors, refurbished doors, stone fireplaces and a Victorian oak bar. Amtrak passengers can walk off the train into the inn.

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