How We Packed Five Years of Christmas into 12 Days
The Dallas Arboretum celebrates its five years of holiday magic with the 12 Days of Christmas display.
It Started with an Idea
When Tom and Phyllis McCasland moved from their small Oklahoma town to Dallas in 1998, the couple’s love for the arts blossomed in their involvement and support of the Dallas Opera, the Dallas Museum of Art, the Dallas Summer Musicals, and of course, the Dallas Arboretum. But Phyllis felt something was missing, something grandeur, something unique that Dallas deserved.
“The 12 Days of Christmas would be perfect,” Phyllis said. “The Dallas Arboretum has the space to house it. The exhibit could be educational, telling you about England, the countryside, traditions and more. It would be a perfect thing that Dallas could be known for during Christmas.”
With the McCasland’s concept and support, President of the Arboretum Mary Brinegar’s leadership, and the expertise of production designer of the Dallas Opera Tommy Bourgeois, a holiday tradition was born.
What Beauty Can 20,000 Hours Create?
Two years of planning and over 20,000 hours of combined labor went into this Victorian- style, yuletide extravaganza, set in 12 massive window displays throughout the garden—masterminded by Bourgeois himself. He came up with the original creative vision and design for the 12 Days of Christmas holiday exhibit at the Dallas Arboretum, oversaw its execution and returns every year to help maintain quality during installation.
“When they came to me with this vision, it was all about that uniqueness, that wow factor. They wanted an experience you can’t possibly get anywhere else,” said Bourgeois. And he certainly delivered on this.
Each gazebo represents a different line from the centuries-old song “The Twelve Days of Christmas,” and includes real period piece clothing and hand-sewn costumes. Every mannequin is also dressed with real human hair.
Uncanny Attention to Detail and Quality
When asked why the inclusion of these extravagant wigs was necessary, Dawn Rivard, hair designer for the Dallas Opera, said, “If you put a synthetic wig on a $2 million project, it looks like a synthetic wig on a $2 million project. The whole presentation is only as good as its weakest link.”
Rivard, who was well versed in window displays before she joined the 12-Days design team, worked on the installment for several weeks at a time in both the fall of 2017 and 2018. Rivard, a self-proclaimed problem-solver, said that the challenges that come with an outdoor display are absolutely worth the pay-off; guests are transported to a Christmas wonderland as they float from gazebo to gazebo.
“Everything has to be stable because you’ve got moving parts and lighting, and wind, and rain, and you have to prepare your hair, your mannequins, your animals, your everything for the worst of it,” said Rivard.
With each wig taking anywhere from 30 minutes to 3 hours for redressing and reinstalling, the process can be tedious. When each wig is finished, Rivard wants it to move naturally with the motorized parts.
Every year, the visual design team adds a few additional embellishments and stylistic elements to improve on the aesthetic appeal and overall feel of the exhibition. From refining the eyelashes and eyebrows, to different holiday songs playing at each gazebo, to polishing the 28,000 rhinestones sparkle, and touching up the 28 hand carved animals and 55 mannequins, the impact is a subtle breath of life. Guests will see and feel the hard work and love that lights up, spins and dances behind all that glass.
Speaking of glass, 29,000 pounds of it is used to enclose the art pieces that came together thanks to the contributions of taxidermists, makeup artists, welders, engineers, designers, and international artisans. “It takes a village to build a village,” joked Bourgeois.
The unsung heroes, Bourgeois noted, are the Firefighters that are there every day helping with the bigger pieces and overseeing set up for safety. “They’re amazing, really, one day I came out and they were down in the fake snow with tweezers. They just want to help like everyone else on the team,” said Bourgeois.
After the exhibit closes each New Year, the Gazebos are disassembled into all their composite pieces placed in giant wooden tombs within 29 semis that have been retrofitted with customs shelves and racks.
“It’s this little piece of magic, this tactile, stationary, visual connection with the Christmas feeling. In this era of technology, it really draws us back to that nostalgia and the building of our past. It feels like what Christmas is really supposed to be about,” said Rivard.
2018 marks the fifth year of the 12 days of Christmas installment, with plans for a dramatic change and new display coming in the fall of 2019. It will build on the magic and hard work everyone has spent years developing, and of course, uphold the Dallas Arboretum’s standards of quality and guest experience.
The 12 Days of Christmas is presented by Reliant and is open through December 31 excluding Thanksgiving and Christmas day, as well as Wednesday – Sunday nights through December 30, PLUS additional, special offerings Monday and Tuesday, December 17 & 18, 2018, 6:00 – 9:00 p.m.
Buy Your 12 Days of Christmas at Night Tickets Here
All Children (Aged 2-12): $10