Maymont is a Richmond treasure families can savor any time of year. Nestled in the city, the beloved estate is especially magical during the holidays, with its glowing lights, seasonal greenery, and opportunities aplenty to get cozy with friends and loved ones outdoors near a crackling fire.
Many families visit Maymont, whether it is to admire the scenery, the animals, and the natural history, tour the historic mansion, or take part in educational programs. Dedicated workers aim to keep the vision of Maymont’s original owners, James and Sallie Dooley, alive.
Samm Wilkinson, who lives in Richmond with her family, says Maymont has been a significant part of her life for as long as she can remember. She grew up taking in the sights and sounds as a child and now relishes bringing her family to Maymont.
“I remember going on a field trip in first grade and crossing the lily pad stones, which are still my favorite part of the park,” says the Chesterfield mom of two. “My mom brought us there often to explore the Italian Gardens, climb trees, and run around.”
These days, Wilkinson brings her nine-year-old daughter and six-year-old son along as companions.
“We have been taking them since they were newborns,” she says. “My favorite spot with my kids is the giant trees by the Hampton entrance on the way to Italian Gardens. They love to get inside the cave-like arbors and climb the low-hanging branches. It just begs them to use their imaginations. I love seeing them challenge themselves to climb higher and come up with creative pretend play.”
The holiday season is the perfect time to discover what Maymont is about. Holiday décor and lighting, unique programming, and other activities make Maymont a favorite holiday tradition for many people in Richmond and beyond.
Garden Glow, a popular celebration of light in the region, shines bright for its fifth year. This year’s festivities run through November 6 with gatherings on the Carriage House lawn by fire pits after sunset. Families are dazzled along the walking tour of the illuminated gardens. New
this season, the lighting winds its way through the historic Italian Garden in addition to the Japanese Garden. Garden Glow also features art installations by local artists. And don’t worry, the giant shadow wall will be back by popular demand, so be sure to strike a pose and share a picture on social media.
“The holidays are always a special season at Maymont,” says Parke Richeson, executive director of Maymont. “I look forward to the sights and scents of fresh evergreen garlands and wreaths that are hung all around the historic buildings and the mansion.”
The Dooleys’ residence, located nearest the Hampton Street entrance, is a must-see at Christmastime. The mansion is adorned for the holidays in high Victorian style, “which means a huge Christmas tree abundant with ornaments, and garlands, wreaths, and flowers everywhere,” Richeson says. “The Victorians truly believed in lavish entertaining at the holidays.”
Maymont’s holiday getup is typically on display starting in late November. In addition to the mansion, guests can admire décor around the Carriage House, Garden Hall, Stone Barn, and garage, which are all draped in fresh pine garlands, wreaths, and swags in that same traditional Victorian style. It takes more than 600 feet of pine garland as well as more than two dozen wreaths and two dozen swags to cover the outside of all the buildings, including the farm and the nature center. The estate uses natural garlands on building exteriors and silk florals and artificial materials inside to avoid exposing historic interiors to pine sap and pollen.
Maymont’s team of horticulturists, educators, and volunteers prepare some of the decorations with evergreen cuttings donated by friends and neighbors. A portion of those materials are also set aside for wreath-making workshops.
“The wreath workshops are designed to be festive and fun for people of all ages and skill levels,” says Sean Proietti, manager of horticulture and grounds at Maymont. “You can create your own evergreen wreaths with the guidance of Maymont staff.”
New this year is Merry Market, a two-day outdoor holiday event set for December 2 and December 3. During the market, families can enjoy hot cocoa around a fire pit under the stars on the Carriage House lawn. Adult beverages will also be available. Local artisans and makers will exhibit their hand-made gifts for holiday shopping. Saint Nicholas will be there for photo ops, in addition to carolers and story times for the kids.
Wilkinson is looking forward to checking out all that Maymont has to offer this holiday season.
“Last year, we went to Garden Glow and absolutely loved it … and had a wonderful time exploring at night a place we know so well,” she says. “I generally gravitate toward Maymont in the warmer months to see things blooming and be able to walk and get outside, but I am intrigued now about coming for the winter holidays. Maymont is incredibly unique. I’ve lived all over the country and have never seen anything quite like it.”
Like Wilkinson, Rachel Contreras, a Henrico mother who homeschools her four children, visited Maymont often as a child. Now she and her husband Oscar love to spend time there with their kids. Contreras enrolls her kids in as many homeschooling events at Maymont as she can, and this past summer her children enjoyed several different camps there.
“We love Maymont because it is an historical site, farm/zoo, nature center, botanical garden, and park all in one, so there’s something for everyone. It is an ideal place for a picnic, and there’s always some new section to discover,” she says.
During the height of the pandemic, the Contreras family took advantage of Maymont’s open-air setting and celebrated their daughter’s birthday as a family on the grounds.
According to Richeson, viewing Maymont as a natural sanctuary during the pandemic was a trend.
“Many people turned to Maymont as an outdoor refuge to connect with nature and animals of the Virginia ecosystem and to learn about the lives of the people who lived and worked at this historic estate over a century ago,” Richeson says.
What’s New and What’s Next?
Maymont is expanding upon its rich history and upgrading its facilities. Earlier this year, the park unveiled a new welcome center as well as an active learning classroom within the Stone Barn near the 1700 Hampton Street entrance. Both are geared toward showcasing the history of the Gilded Age, as well as informing guests about African Americans who lived and worked at the estate during the Jim Crow era.
Children of all ages are welcome in the active learning classroom, which features swivel chairs and movable furniture to provide comfortable, hands-on learning with a focus on Virginia’s Standards of Learning. Here, families can engage with period toys and tools, including model vehicles of the era, as well as vintage Sears Roebuck and Company catalogs and antique telephones – the precursors to Amazon and mobile devices.
The goal with the new classroom is to help students “learn about lifestyles and inventions that brought Richmond into the new century,” says Krista Weatherford, director of programming and community engagement at Maymont.
“We want people to understand how all these histories intersect,” she says. “There are plenty of opportunities for children to see what life was like back then and how it influences today.”
The African American experience during the Civil War and after the abolition of slavery is reflected with a timeline that includes key events, such as the creation of the Freedmen’s Bureau and the first African American newspaper in Richmond, the Richmond Planet, which was founded in 1882 by formerly enslaved Richmonders. Visitors will also see what life was like for Black families in Richmond during that time.
Admirers of the Maymont Mansion also have a new reason to return with recent enhancements to the home. The mansion’s third level is now open to the public for the first time. Here, families can touch and feel replicas of period furniture, toys, and other materials, which gives them a better understanding of the people who lived and worked at the Dooley mansion, what their jobs were, and how they fit into the community. In the housekeeper’s room, kids can climb in chairs, lay in the bed, and play, imagining what it may have been like to be a part of life back then.
“You engage in history in a different way when you can touch and use your senses,” says Richeson.
Maymont Mansion has an updated exhibition, In Service and Beyond, which highlights the Maymont household and its domestic workers in the social, economic, and technological contexts of the era. After a careful reexamination of the Maymont legacy, stakeholders and curators decided it was time to go beyond the duties, rituals, and material culture of Gilded Age service to address the challenges of African American domestic workers. There’s a redesigned sitting area where guests can view a video with biographies of Maymont’s staff members. Visitors can also tour replicas of a maid’s room, a butler’s room, the laundry room, the drying room, the kitchen, the food pantry, and other areas that were staffed by domestic workers.
There are also several new self-guided audio tours as part of Maymont’s expansion projects, including family-friendly versions kids will enjoy. More audio tours are forthcoming offering additional details of the gardens and grounds as well as the Carriage House, the Stone Barn, and the Water Tower, which were specifically designed to evoke a European village.
“Maymont’s new welcome center, historical audio tours, and redesigned exhibition spaces allow guests to experience the stories from Maymont’s past in a whole new way,” says Richeson.
Guests can also expect upgrades to Maymont’s native rescued wildlife habitats, home to more than 400 wildlife and farm animals, many of which have been rescued or rehabilitated but are unable to be released back into their natural habitats.
The Robins Nature Center, a hit with kids and families, was renovated and reopened in the summer of 2020 with several new exhibits, including Run of the River, featuring fish, amphibians, and reptiles that make up the James River ecosystem, as well as a 34-foot climbing sculpture where kids can discover more about microscopic river organisms.
Another family favorite, the Carriage House comes alive at Christmastime. Maymont has a collection of more than twenty vintage carriages, with some on display here. The carriage collection was established more than forty years ago, thanks to the support of Elisabeth Scott Bocok, the daughter of one of James Dooley’s business associates.
“The primary purpose of the Maymont Carriage Collection is to interpret horse-drawn transportation typical of country estates in Virginia during the period that the Dooleys lived at Maymont,” says Proietti.
Richeson is looking forward to sharing the property’s new features with the community during the holiday season and beyond.
“As we approach Maymont’s one hundredth anniversary as a public space in 2025, this investment will ensure Maymont continues to delight, educate, and inspire people for another hundred years,” she says.
When You Go!
Playing and exploring on the grounds at Maymont – including Maymont Farm, the specialty gardens, the arboretum, and many of the historical buildings – is free (with a suggested donation). With a Maymont membership, you receive special discounts on birthday party packages and gift shop items and advance notice for select events and camp registration. Perhaps most importantly for families, Maymont members enjoy free admission to the Robins Nature Center and Maymont Mansion. If you’re thinking about a way to give fun instead of stuff this holiday season, a Maymont family membership is a wonderful option. Not only are you helping create memories, your gift helps keep Maymont beautiful and accessible to all.
Here’s a sample of what families can see and do during the holidays at Maymont.
Garden Glow, nightly through November 6
Event features fire pits, refreshments, food trucks, and a self-guided walking tour through the illuminated gardens. Held rain or shine.
Advance tickets: $15 per person; $10 for children ages 3 to 12; and free for children under 2. Day-of tickets: $17 per person; $12 for children ages 3 to 12.
Maymont members: $10 admission for adults; $7 for children ages 3 to 12.
November 29 through December 3
This event is a favorite for sixteen and up. Participants are encouraged to bring their own clippers and gloves. Includes refreshments and adult beverages, so bring an ID. Early reservations are recommended.
Cost is $55 per person; $41.25 for members and includes supplies.
Merry Market, December 2 and 3
Outdoor event includes hot cocoa by the fire; a marketplace with local artisans, makers, and unique gifts; photo ops with Saint Nicholas; carolers and jazz music; food trucks, beer, and wine.
Cost is $10 per person; $5 for children twelve and under. Members can attend Merry Market for free.
Photography: Courtsey Maymont, Larissa Tyler, Michael Simon, and Scott Schwartzkopf