Winterlights festival glows on a winter night at Naumkeag — BTW column

The courtyard is hung with Chinese lanterns. In the early night they glow overhead like moons. I’m standing on the stone steps of the tea house, and I remember standing here in the spring with thousands of daffodils and tulips in bloom, looking out across the valley. Tonight everything outside the garden wall is dark. But the gardens and the woods are glimmering.

Naumkeag has turned on 200,000 bulbs in its second annual Winterlights. 

When I walk through the round gate of the Chinese Garden and down the grass steps to the fountain, lights fill the fountain’s bowl and spills like water. As I step down between the hedges, the lights shift from green to blue, and the music changes to a quiet instrumentation of Leonard Cohen’s Hallelujah. It’s a gentle melody without the words.

The festival has doubled in size this year, general manager Brian Cruey tells me, pausing at the top of the blue stairs. Tonight they are gleaming red and gold with lights wound around the birch trees. Cruey and his team have put up twice as many lights this year and extended them farther along the loop of path through the woods.

The scale of it is striking. In places the lights shine in vivid hard-candy colors. A long alley of saplings glint like a rainbow and opens into a tent and a tunnel made of red and green bulbs.

But then the pathway turns a corner into the woods, and pinpricks of green light flit like foxfire on the pine trees.

In the greenhouse, light flickers like candles among poinsettias and bulbs. The color here comes only from the plants, and the room is warm. Most of the festival is outdoors, and though the day was mild for November the night is cold and dark by 5:30.  

But the garden has more than one place for people to thaw out.

At the center of the labyrinth, a log fire is burning in a bed of glowing embers in a wide coppery bowl, and people sit around it on log benches, leaning close and drinking hot chocolate and hot cider slowly. 

And at the end, the winding path leads into the historic house. I walked through the walled garden where the clipped hedge and gondoliers’ poles are gleaming and  stepped into the back porch. A line of saplings are resting here, with their roots carefully wrapped in earth and burlap, sleeping until the spring. I remembered Robert Frost’s instructions to his apple trees in winter — good-bye and keep cold.

Tonight these are wishing trees. A young woman offers me a tag and a silver pen to write a wish and hang it from a branch. Inside the house the Christmas trees are lit in the living room, but there’s something simple and austere in this quiet porch, with the bare trees and warm light, and the wishes seem to reflect it. I walked around reading them as I thought about mine. They were not letters to the North Pole. People were wishing to see people they love. And some were wishing to see people they have lost. Some wished for rest or sunlight.

I wonder what they will say by New Year.

Winterlights is a new festival, and it seems to have taken off strongly. Last fall, Cruey led the effort to get the property wired for the kind of power it takes to keep 200,000 lights on, and in its first year, he told me last spring, the event grew beyond anything he expected. Some 22,000 people came. 

Many of them live in the Berkshires, he said, and many had never come to Naumkeag before. He wants Naumkeag to be the kind of place where families bring picnics in summer and play games on the lawn. 

And he is making it happen. In October this year, he expanded Pumpkin Festival into a month-long event with jack-o-lanterns along the trails, and Naumkeag saw 15,000 people come to explore, more than twice as many as the year before.

In November, the old house is a shadow under vast trees. Naumkeag has set up a shuttle to parking at the Marian Fathers, but I’d left my car down on Main Street, so I walked back. Naumkeag sits on a quiet road above the downtown, without street lights. I thought about how quickly it got dark away from the house, and how rarely I walk in the full dark, in the woods or unlit streets. I love walking at night — moonlight, winter constellations, the way the air feels clean and sounds and textures feel clear. And I’ll walk on the lit sidewalks around my college town, but I rarely feel secure enough to walk in the dark alone. 

Winter Lights will run at Naumkeag on Thursday to Sunday evenings through December 29, and on December 30 and 31, at 5 Prospect Hill Road in Stockbridge.

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