All decked out

Christmas decorations return to Belle Grove
Celie Harris, a member of the Winchester-Clarke Garden Club, decorates a small pine tree in the nursery inside Belle Grove in Middletown on Wednesday. Rich Cooley/Daily
Jean Gilpin, a member of the Winchester-Clarke Garden Club, hangs a floating angel from a lamp. Rich Cooley/Daily
Jean Martin, a member of the Shenandoah Garden Club in Woodstock, finishes wrapping a grapevine wreath with ribbon inside the parlor of Belle Grove. Rich Cooley/Daily

MIDDLETOWN — The Christmas spirit is back at Belle Grove.

Eleven local garden clubs have decorated 11 different rooms at the historic Middletown estate for its annual Christmas tours.

A 12-foot tall cedar Christmas tree, donated by Ralph and Carolyn Gregory of Stephens City, dominates the parlor, and the dining room is set just as Isaac and Nelly Hite would’ve done for Christmas dinner.

Although Christmas decorations in the 1800s were relatively modest, Belle Grove Executive Director Kristen Laise said they go all out to decorate the house according to an annual theme.

This year’s theme is “Christmas in the Valley.”

“We wanted to highlight the valley’s holiday traditions, whether it’s plants, arts, food, music or crafts,” she said, “and that’s one reason we decided on having a cedar tree.”

Inside the parlor, a group of women from the Shenandoah Garden Club of Woodstock decorated the room with apples and plants on Wednesday.

Shenandoah Garden Club member Ethel Showman said they chose to use apples to reflect the area’s agricultural heritage.

“We figured if you lived in Frederick County at that time, apples would be a part of your Christmas decor,” she said. “You wouldn’t be able to get lemons and pineapples and all that.”

In addition to the apples, which ranged from whole apples to apple clove pomanders and strings of dried-out apple slices, their decorations also included locally sourced chestnuts, English walnuts and grapevine leaves.

Another pair of decorators have become seasoned veterans.

Celie Harris and Jean Gilpin, members of the Winchester-Clarke Garden Club, said they’ve been decorating rooms at Belle Grove since the ’80s.

This holiday season, they were decorating the mansion’s nursery with a woodland theme. A lifelike rabbit stood frozen on a windowsill, while a flock of birds rested on a mantle and a pair of snowy owls sat on a table waiting to be placed.

Holding a wreath made out of dried hydrangeas and feathers and dotted with bird nests, Gilpin said the idea for their decorations was inspired by the forests and little creatures that populate the valley.

She said the annual tradition helps get them into the spirit of Christmas.

“We’ve probably done every room in the house at some point,” she said.

Other garden clubs decorating rooms at Belle Grove include: Northern Shenandoah Valley Master Gardeners, Hawthorne Garden Club, Shenandoah Chapter of Colonial Dames XXII Century, Colonial Garden Club, Glen Burnie Garden Club, Massanutten Garden Club, Middletown Garden Club, Valley Garden Club and Little Garden Club of Winchester.

Starting Friday, the house will be open to guided tours from 10 a.m. to 4 p.m. Mondays through Saturdays and from 1 to 6 p.m. Sundays. The house will be open for self-guided candlelight tours from 4 to 8 p.m. on Fridays and Saturdays.

Each tour includes spiced tea and cookies.

From 6 to 8 p.m. each Friday and Saturday and from 3 to 5 p.m. Dec. 21, the house will feature live music.

Belle Grove will be closed on Christmas Eve and Christmas. The last day it will be open for the season is Dec. 30.

Admission is $12 for adults, $5 for Belle Grove and National Trust members and free for children younger than 12.

Contact staff writer Ryan Cornell at 540-465-5137 ext. 164, or

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