Outside the Longwood Gardens conservatories the wind whistles through the antlers of six evergreen, topiary reindeer standing stiff as frozen laundry on a clothesline. Inside the nearly four acres under glass, it's beginning to look a lot like Christmas.
On this gusty November afternoon, topiary wizard Pat Hammer and staff are planting a mane of green wispy Liriope on an ivy-coated lion and attaching a tail of white chrysanthemum ``feathers'' on an ostrich. The life-size animals are figures on a topiary carousel being decked out in holiday finery.
This year the Christmas theme is ``Winter Carnival,'' and everywhere workers are scurrying around like oversize Santa's elves making the theme come true.
Christmas happens quickly at Longwood - the exquisite 20th-century pleasure gardens developed by Pierre S. duPont between 1906 and 1954. Longwood Gardens is open to the public every day of the year, holidays included. No luxury of time for the staff here. No closing down for a week while a new display is being set up. At 5 o'clock on the Sunday after Thanksgiving, as soon as the last visitor has left the lot, hundreds of workers appear like Johnny-jump-ups.
Thousands of chrysanthemums in blooms of rust, yellow, white, and purple, planted for the November display, are quickly uprooted and sent off to plant Siberia - the compost heap. The only ones remaining are massive baskets of cascading white mums that hang like giant snowballs above the stretch of green grass.
Right behind come the cultivating machines, churning up soil while other employees, on their knees, are handed the first of more than 2,000 red, pink, and cream poinsettias to plant.
Coleus, with high, blue-spiked blossoms, pink and white cyclamen, and orange winter-blooming begonias fill in between the waves of poinsettias.
``It all looks so perfect on paper,'' says Landon Scarlett, who hasn't lost a bit of enthusiasm after 18 years here. Ms. Scarlett is in charge of floral design. ``We plan it all on paper a year in advance, but it never works out exactly that way. Sometimes there's a crop failure, or flowers just don't blossom the way they should. So we have to plant something else,'' she said, still questioning a border of white and green coleus that had to be substituted at the last minute.
``And everything doesn't have to be red, green, and white just because it's Christmas,'' she adds. ``That gets boring after a while. Look at those bird of paradise plants there. They've been here since the '30s. Who cares if the blossoms are orange? They hold the corners of the garden down and give great character to the exhibit. And look at the gorgeous pink of these old-fashioned begonias. The world doesn't know about these. No one would take the time or trouble to grow them; they're very difficult. But look how they pick up the pink in the poinsettias and cyclamen.''
The one area that doesn't get touched is the broad swath of lawn in the main conservatory. ``The lawn,'' says Scarlett, ``is sacred.''
Sharon Fisher, exhibit specialist, is the ``new kid'' in the garden. She's been at Longwood for only five years. ``For three years I've been trying to have the Christmas tree here,'' she said proudly, as she watched it being set up in the Exhibition Hall. It hasn't been here since Mr. du Pont was around. DuPont, great-uncle of the current presidential contender, died in 1954.
This year Ms. Fisher - with committee approval, of course - decided on a 23-foot Douglas fir showered with thousands of tiny white lights and decorated only with 227 pots of red poinsettias, arranged on the tips of each branch. Thin, green spaghetti hoses connect the pots to the water supply.
No plastic blossoms here. And no Santa Claus or Rudolph, or anything overtly religious.
``I did the Christmas tree for our music theme two years ago,'' said Fisher, ``with white doves at the top holding sheets of music. My boss came in and said, `I'm not sure about the doves, Sharon - too religious.'
```Well, what do you want then?' I asked. `Oh, how about a star?' he said. `What do you think the star symbolizes?' I asked. ```Oh, that's right. I guess you'd better leave the doves,' he said.''
There was also the time the major display tree was brought in and set up in a revolving stand. ``The only problem was,'' Fisher went on to say, ``the tree was lopsided and wouldn't turn. We had to take it down and make wreaths out of it.''
Fortunately, with 1,000 acres of Longwood property there's no shortage of trees. ``We found another one in one of the employees' front yard,'' she added with a grin.
In keeping with this year's Winter Carnival motif, Fisher decorated the trees in the music room with dozens of brightly colored harlequin doll ornaments. Around the trees are 18 antique, hand-carved carousel animals, on loan from Charlotte Dinger of Morristown, N.J. In the ballroom to the right, organ concerts and sing-alongs are given throughout the month.
Everywhere at Longwood the taste and understated style of the duPont family is present. Public relations director Colin Randall puts it this way: ``Aesthetic approach is very high here. Anything that suggests hokiness just doesn't go.''
It almost did, once. Several years ago someone got hold of some flashing Christmas lights. ``It was terrible,'' said one of the staff. ``We plugged them in and they started blinking off and on, off and on. It was like it was flashing, `duPont, duPont, duPont.'
``Well, needless to say, they didn't last long.''
The Christmas display at Longwood Gardens runs until Jan 3. If you plan to visit, the best, least crowded, and most beautiful time is at dusk during the dinner hour in midweek. And if it's not possible during the holiday season, beauty abounds every day of the year.
Admission is $5 for adults, $1 for youngsters 6-14; children under 6 are admitted free. Hours are 10 a.m. to 9 p.m.