5 Questions With Erin Manning of the Flagler Museum

Photo courtesy of the Flagler Museum

The Flagler Museum at Christmastime is one of the county’s most festive escapes

Christmas is, according to Flagler Museum Executive Director Erin Manning, a “big deal.”

Preparation is a multiweek enterprise that’s completed by Thanksgiving, and is not limited to wreaths hung on the street leading to the restored Palm Beach palace, and garlands decorating the windows of the front façade. Inside the mansion, no yuletide expense is spared.

The 16-foot tree in the Grand Hall—situated roughly where the Flaglers arranged their own giant fir tree in the early 20th century—is studded with glass and paper ornaments evoking the Gilded Age, and garlands infuse every room with the festivity of the season. Period Christmas cards are displayed in the ballroom.

At the tree lighting, traditionally held on the first Sunday in December, descendants of the Flagler and Kenan families flip the switch, Santa Claus makes a cameo, there is holiday caroling in the courtyard, and musicians perform on the 1902-vintage pipe organ in the music room. For the week leading up to Christmas Day, the Flagler stays open after hours for popular Holiday Evening Tours of the museum.

Alas, all of this revelry is potentially on pause this year. At the time of this writing, large gatherings have still been curtailed because of the coronavirus. But if there’s any year that Americans can use a jolt of Christmas spirit, it’s this one.

Manning hopes the museum’s longstanding holiday traditions will bring their customary warmth to a frosty 2020.

WHY IS CHRISTMAS SUCH AN IMPORTANT PERIOD OF TIME FOR THE FLAGLER MUSEUM?

We tell the story of the house, and Christmas was a holiday that was celebrated here. It has turned out to be an important traditional program, where families come enjoy the beauty of the house. We try to set things up similar to how Mary Lily and Henry Flagler would have set it up when they were here, between 1902 and 1913.

WHAT WERE CHRISTMASES LIKE DURING THE GILDED AGE?

There are some things that have changed over time, but the idea of gift-giving, which was an important aspect of Christmas in the Gilded Age, has been around for a long time. Early trees often had gifts tied to the branches; the tradition of putting presents down below has come about later. The Flaglers also celebrated it with a spirit of generosity; they had gifts for each other, but Flagler would have gifts for local children to be given out as well.

CAN YOU TELL US ABOUT THE HOLIDAY EVENING TOURS?

They’re a wonderful way for the public to see the house in its original lighting, at night. On those tours, which are given by our incredible docent team, families come in together, they have punch and Christmas cookies, and they tour the museum at night. It’s just a really special, warm and cozy feature. If we’re unable to do it in 2020 safely, it’s something we can’t wait to return to in 2021.

HOW HAVE VISITORS TAKEN TO THE CORONAVIRUS-RELATED CHANGES IN PROTOCOL?

We spent a lot of time before we reopened in June. We put protocols in place that are appropriate and strict. And our visitors have been incredibly grateful.

We have timed entrances, so we know when people are coming. We have a fixed route throughout the property. We guide you with floor mats and stanchions, and with the generous spirit of our floor attendants. We moved our store into one of our enormous historic rooms, and spread the merchandise out on the beautiful displays. We did a lot of training with our wonderful team, to make sure they understood that their safety needs to be as high a priority as the visitors’ safety. So by backing up, they’re paying a compliment to our visitors. We keep the six feet of social distancing as a minimum. And it’s worked.

WHAT PROGRAMMING AT THE FLAGLER HAVE YOU MISSED THE MOST DURING THE PANDEMIC?

We missed July Fourth. It was hard not to have 300 people on our property, looking up over the water, watching the fireworks. One of the wonderful things we do each year is bring in someone from our community to read the Declaration of Independence as part of that program. We missed being able to do that.

A really nice thing happened; in crisis, people come together. As soon as he saw we were canceling it, the head of middle school at the Benjamin School said, ‘Erin, we’ll have some of our students read the Declaration of Independence, and do a video, and you can send it out to your members.’ It was young voices talking about the original intention of the Declaration of Independence. It was just beautiful. It was a good that came out of COVID.

Flagler Museum, 1 Whitehall Way, Palm Beach, https://www.flaglermuseum.us/

This story is from the November/December 2020 issue of Boca magazine. For more content like this, subscribe to the magazine.