One woman’s idea of creating a grand holiday tradition, the imagination of a costume and set designer, and the talents of a stage builder have come together in the Dallas Arboretum and Botanical Garden’s “12 Days of Christmas” exhibition — whimsical, Victorian-inspired worlds that represent each of the gifts in the popular carol, on display through Jan. 4.
Along the pathways that stretch three-quarters of a mile, a dozen ornate, glassed-in gazebos standing 25 feet tall capture each of the “days” with life-size mannequins and soft music playing.
At “Eight maids a-milking,” for example, the gazebo is decorated as a barn and divided into four stalls, each containing a cow and two comely milkmaids.
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The life-size mannequins sport charming period dress — colorful plaid or striped skirts and white peasant blouses topped with vests and aprons of solids or florals. Their faces have been painted with individual expressions. The Jersey cows — some with heads in their feed buckets, others with a mouthful of hay and appraising the onlookers — sport flocked hides and mechanical, swishing tails. Their sweet faces flaunt long eyelashes.
Look even more closely and you’ll see a kitty napping on a feed sack and a mouse surveying the scene from atop a rustic milk can. One milkmaid has thrown up her gloved hands in frustration as her pail of fresh milk has spilled across the barn floor. Did the cow kick it over, or did she herself, frightened by the surprise sighting of the mouse?
These vignettes represent the creativity of their designer, Tommy Bourgeois, who has been the Dallas Opera set and costume designer for 30 years.
“Eight is my favorite; it tells four stories,” Bourgeois says.
As a youth, Bourgeois says, he wanted to be a window dresser — especially at Christmastime when department stores turned their window displays into wonderlands of fantasy and extravagance.
“That didn’t happen, but these [gazebos] are three-dimensional windows, modeled after department store windows,” Bourgeois says.
Indeed, standing outside and looking in, visitors feel themselves a part of the scene inside.
At “Nine ladies dancing,” for instance, in a curtained and garlanded Victorian ballroom dominated by an elaborate Christmas tree, nine maidens in beaded and sequined ball gowns spin and dance around the tree to musical strains from The Nutcracker.
Their fingers are adorned with rings, and dance cards (ask your grandmother) hang delicately from each lady’s wrist. Under the flickering candles on the tree, there’s a bench for a short rest and presents to be opened later. Another pesky mouse secretly surveys the scene here, too.
In fact, Bourgeois reveals there are five mice hidden within the “12 Days” exhibit.
Bourgeois’s vignettes carry through this element of the unexpected. Instead of relying on jewelry, for example, for “Five golden rings,” Bourgeois creates a fanciful circus tent with four seals and a polar bear working in harmony to balance giant hoops of gold on their noses.
“We created something more for the kids, but I think the adults enjoy it just as much,” Bourgeois says of the set.
In “10 lords a-leaping,” he has envisioned the “lords” of Victorian times — bankers and businessmen — and put them on ice skates. Clothes are wired so scarves and coattails appear to be blown aloft by the skaters’ movement. Ice skates are encrusted with snow. A couple of graceful skaters have both feet off the ground, while another lord struggles to keep his feet solidly planted on the ice. And did anyone notice that mouse?
“Seven swans a-swimming” includes one black swan gliding among six snowy ones, a nod to Bourgeois’ arts background (think the ballet Swan Lake). Icicles drip down the gazebo’s windows and from the ceiling of this frozen, wintry world.
Groupings of live fir trees from Oregon around the gazebos add to the holiday ambiance. During the day, visitors who wish not to walk can ride trams around the exhibit. At night, the displays illuminate for “The 12 Days at Night,” giving patrons a rare chance to visit the garden after dark and enjoy refreshments and caroling.
Greg Blackburn of Dallas Stage Scenery built the displays, making sure to include a mechanical element in each vignette.
But it was the vision of Arboretum supporter Phyllis McCasland that planted the seed for the $2 million exhibit, which will return to the garden for the next five holiday seasons.
“It seemed to me that Dallas didn’t have anything grand [for Christmas],” McCasland says. “‘The 12 Days of Christmas’ would be perfect, and the Dallas Arboretum has the space to house it. It would be a perfect thing that Dallas could be known for during Christmas.”
By the numbers
30,456 wooden berries on transoms
29,137 pounds of glass used
20,000-plus hours of labor to build gazebos
400 gallons of paint used
180 yards of fabric to sew gowns for “Nine ladies dancing”
8 weeks to assemble gazebos in the gardens
4 people to sew costumes
364 gifts given in the song
Source: Dallas Arboretum
The 12 Days of Christmas
▪ Through Jan. 4
▪ Dallas Arboretum and Botanical Garden
8525 Garland Road, Dallas
▪ 214-515-6500; www.dallasarboretum.org
▪ 9 a.m.-5 p.m. daily; special nightly showings 6-10 p.m.
▪ Exhibit included with general garden admission: $15, $12 for seniors, $10 ages 3-12; members free. Parking $15.
▪ For evening admission, pre-purchased tickets required for members and nonmembers: $20, $15 for seniors, $10 ages 3-12; $9-$12 for members. Parking included.
Notes: Wheelchairs available on first-come, first-served basis. Trams available during the day. Some nighttime dates are sold out.