A World Class Christmas Tradition: Christmas in the Park

As I interact with visitors along Park Avenue each year, there is no event I tell them they must return to see more than the one which occurs tonight.  Winter Park has lots of LUVly, wonderful and even amazing events.  But to my mind, there is only one I would consider not just first class, but WORLD class.  That is Christmas in the Park.

With its century plus old Morse Museum Tiffany windows lit from behind and truly glorious voices & music of the Bach Festival Choir & Orchestra, Christmas in the Park is an event you will find no where else.  The Morse Museum’s world’s largest collection of Tiffany glass ensures it.  That combined with the extraordinary sounds of classic Christmas songs, it is unique, unmatched, world class holiday magic.

A few years ago while writing for the now shuttered Winter Park Maitland Observer, I wrote two pieces about the event, sharing them below.  The Morse Museum & The Morse Genius Foundationl, their LUVly impact on this community should be appreciated this day even more than others throughout the year.  Truly, Winter Park, we are blessed.

Merry Christmas & Happy Holidays.

A look behind the scenes at the Morse Museum’s Christmas in the Park coming together.

My mind works in mysterious ways, and sometimes annoying ones. That it began recalling the decades old epic fail of Geraldo Rivera opening Al Capone’s vault live on television to find only dust and a few bottles is just the way those gears began to turn as I anticipated last Thursday morning. But the smile on my face as I rushed from home was because I knew real treasures were in my future.

Being allowed to observe all involved with the Morse Museum’s Christmas in the Park event coming together, I couldn’t help but think Christmas had come early. As I stood inside their warehouse upon signing in and seeing the large neon signs of one time local businesses above me, that seemed to understate it. I asked to take a few pictures and Walter, the security guard, hit the lights. My morning was off to a most excellent start with lights different than those that motivated this visit.

One of the Tiffany windows on display during Christmas in the Park, celebrating its 41st year with tonight’s event.

As I told others what I’d be doing that morning, most wanted to know how the windows are moved. What I found was that these amazing old-school works of art are handled and transported in a very old-school manner, albeit, an extraordinarily careful one. The windows remain in their display boxes all year long waiting for their next performance. They stood there in a corner, rather ominously, looking like large dominoes, ones that will never be allowed to topple.

Those handles on the sides get used, and are not there by accident. They’re pulled and leaned and then rolled oh-so-carefully, slowly, six men constantly aware of the treasures they have been charged with transporting, and protecting in the process. Loaded into a flatbed truck, tied and secured, it’s off to Central Park to conduct the same dance, somewhat in reverse.

I watch with Catherine Hinman, the Morse Museum’s director of public affairs and publications. She notes that this is fun for her, too, as she never just stands and watches. Her narration of what I see, both in moving the windows and other sights within the warehouse, was a treat in and of itself. Details spew forth easily. She endures my requests to repeat something, as I reach for my recorder. She describes the day’s events as “more than a sum of its parts,” refers often to community, the museum’s desires in that regard and Hugh and Jeannette McKean.

As we watch the loading, I ask about the bulbs that light the windows from behind. She notes they are now LED, which were not adequate for the job until the last few years. She speaks of fuses that would sometimes blow in the old setup, a concern now removed from her list. “The technology has evolved. It used to be that we had a person at every window and when Larry said ‘May I have the lights, please,’ each individual tried to synchronize. Now, with technology, we have a wireless system which allows them all to come on exactly at once, so it’s wonderful.”

I ask about a nearby blanket with chairs on it. The enthusiasts are already arriving — at about 8:30 that morning. I jokingly refer to them as squatters. Catherine responds: “I call them fans.” I go over to a young mother now setting up two chairs on a blanket. “What deals are you here for, the flat screen televisions or an iPod, or another great deal?” She laughs, gets my reference to another recent day and says, “We’re here to enjoy the Christmas concert tonight.” Her name is Catherine Stella and she and her family are here for the sixth straight year. I ask about the placement strategy, as this is obviously not all about being close to the stage. “It’s close to the sidewalk so that we can get to the bathroom, because we have children. And it’s close to the sound booth so that we can locate one another.” Catherine Hinman has told me about taking copious notes every year, “So that we fix any little issues which come up. It should be seamless, everything should be invisible; it’s just an art installation and a great musical performance,” she says. I laugh now, thinking it’s obvious attendees plan from one event to the next as well.

The Morse Museum is not just the place with the largest collection of Tiffany glass in the world. It is also the place with the largest collection of vintage signs in Orlando, including this neon sign which once glowingly announced the location of Miller’s Hardware.

Soon off it’s to the warehouse again, Catherine riding with me. She’s been fretting over a 40 percent chance of rain. I reassure her that a 40 percent chance from people who are right 60 percent or less of the time is pretty good.

The event was only nearly rained out once. She says it rained all day during set up, but stopped about 10 minutes before the show. Then, just before the show’s scheduled end, it started lightning. “That was the year that John Sinclair literally had to announce that it was time to leave, and he sang everybody off.”

We discuss caring for the windows, and their conservation. “Not even the descendants could maintain these places,” she says of the historic homes such as Tiffany’s Laurelton Hall. “Conservation,” she said, includes actually taking the windows apart, piece-by-piece to reconstruct, dealing with buckling which occurs over time. “You are committed for life. They’re like your children. You have to maintain them and watch their condition, and protect them and steward them.”

Back in the park I see Nancy Miles setting up a large group of chairs. “When Jack (her husband) walked at 8 he said they’re already reserving spots and we’d better get there, so that’s what we’re doing.” I ask about their specific location, and she says they want to be close enough to see, adding, “But there’s really not a bad seat.”

It’s the windows, yes, but it’s also the windows in unison with the glorious, beautiful voices and music of Winter Park’s Bach Festival Choir & Orchestra.

I walk about taking pictures, notice an elaborate table that stands out. I ask Steve Vaughan, who put it all together, if I can take a photo and he agrees. “I always sit behind this light because no one else wants to sit here,” he says. “I don’t need to see the stage because I can hear it.” I remark on his setup and he says his wife Kirsten has trained him well. It includes miniature fruitcake cookies his mother shipped in from Kentucky just for the event. He invites me back for a glass of wine, and I assure him he will see me again.

He did.

Just before the windows are lit, I see a very dry Catherine, no longer fretting the weather. “It’s wonderful. It’s really wonderful. The only thing we were worried about was the weather, and the weathermen, thankfully, were wrong.”

The Tiffany windows beautifully glow to life, illuminated by lights from behind.

I have an embarrassing confession: Having lived here for five years before, last year was the first time I attended a ‘Christmas in the Park’ celebration, featuring the spectacular Tiffany windows from the Morse Museum.

I feel a bit like punishment is in order. Admittedly, I was really there that night because I saw all the action during the day, working just across the street. I didn’t have a clue what I was missing. You hear things, not all accurate, and whatever you imagined is rarely what you come to find. And when something is in your own backyard you may appreciate that fact yet never actually enjoy it — at least as often as others might assume you would.

At one time clueless what I was missing, these days it is automatic I will be there, enjoying a healthy, beautiful does of Christmas spirit. It’s impossible NOT to feel it.

When we lived in Fort Lauderdale, my life partner, Jim, always said he loved living near the beach. How often did he go? Rarely. When we traveled to Australia in 1998, I remember being in Cairns just before we headed into the Outback to see Uluru, more commonly known as Ayers Rock. He asked a local resident in Cairns what it was like, and they said they’d never been there. He was shocked. They then asked him: Have you ever been to the Grand Canyon? He admitted he had not.

The exotic and alluring is often not what we associate with anything close, or easily accessible. That is surely not, and should not be the case with these amazing windows.

I crossed Park Avenue that night last year as the music played, attendees shuffled in an orderly way to view the displayed windows, which so beautifully glowed to life, illuminated by lights from behind. They were breathtaking.

From the first column I wrote for The Observer back in May, I knew I would be writing about this event, hoping to offer a unique narration of the day’s preparations, how it is setting up these beautiful 500 pound windows — which date from 1890s to 1907 — for outdoor display, and I’m thrilled to say I will be doing that all day this Thursday, to appear here next week. As I’ve gotten closer, however, I’ve also developed some apprehension. This is an amazing event, a truly world-class event, held right here in my adopted hometown. What if my usual meandering word deluge is less than this deserves? Wondering that has gotten me even more excited.

I believe this is he largest in the Morse Museum’s collection of vintage Orlando signs: The Ronnie’s signs, from a restaurant which was location along Colonial in The Milk District.

Sunday evening I was at a grand opening for Nature in Beauty in the Hidden Garden Courtyard and asked longtime Winter Park resident and business owner Douglas Marvaldi his thoughts on the event. I’d heard about a restaurant, La Belle Verrierre, located where Williams-Sonoma is now, and Douglas began by noting it was windows from the Morse Museum that added the eye-catching color and design for which it was often known. “You’d walk in and see these amazing pieces of glass,” he said. “It was really a showcase for their windows and it was very well done.”

I asked what he thought about the Christmas event – which he’s attended personally five or six times – and the Morse itself adds to the community and he said, “I think it adds everything to Winter Park. This has become a – just think about the Tiffany collection, the biggest, the largest collection in the world, people come from all over the world to see it. It’s amazing wherever you go, wherever you travel, I’ll meet people and they’ll say where are you from and they’ll say ‘oh yeah, that’s where you’ve got that museum with the Tiffany windows, the Tiffany glass.’”

I met Catherine Hinman, the Morse Museum’s director of public affairs and publications, last year at a Park Avenue Sip event. I spoke to her recently about ‘Christmas in the Park.’ She apologized several times for being so close to the project, assuming people know as much about it as she does. With the Morse for 13 years, there’s still a thrill evident in her voice as she speaks of the event, and the Museum’s amazing collection.

I ask about the greatest misconception associated with the event and she says many think this is a city event, when it is completely funded by the Morse Museum. She describes it as their gift each year to the community of which they are part. After that night, she says, “Four of the memorial windows go to retirement homes in Winter Park and to Winter Park hospital for the month of December as an extension of the event to people who cannot attend. After that they are back in the vaults until the next year.”

Gorgeous. One of my favorite Tiffany windows on display during Christmas in the Park.

I’m excited to see behind the scenes, all that goes into its setup, and ask what’s involved. “It takes the whole staff of the Museum pretty much, and more. Just about everyone is involved. On the day of the event, we have six men installing windows, guards at every window, docents at every window (in two shifts), the sound and light team, the Bach Festival folks (150 there!), there is the mounted patrol from Orange County, the Winter Park Police Explorers, the off duty police we hire to manage the road closures,” she explained.

Catherine – who actually shares the name of one of the women to whom one of the windows was produced in honor of, Katherine Hinman – said the museum estimates usual attendance at around 3,000 each year.

“It unites the entire community under the Central Florida stars for a shared tradition that provides, just as the Museum does, an immersion in beauty and a respite from the commercialism of the holiday,” she says. “I can’t think of anywhere else in the world that such a unique celebration of art and music could take place. It is a gift from the Morse, an idea that Hugh and Jeannette McKean conceived because they believed in making art accessible and that some people would not visit a museum. It is as much a part of their legacy as is the Museum.”

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