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One of the many inconveniences endured because our world has bent to the reality of the coronavirus is that North Carolina’s Executive Mansion will be closed to the public during the holiday season. While the interior decorations will be scaled back, this year’s focus will be on the mansion grounds, with colored illuminations on all four sides, garlands and wreaths on the fence and gates. The two front parlors will each have a large tree in the window, decorated with white lights. And festive trees will be displayed in the center second floor window and the center third floor widow.

Just because we can’t tour the mansion in person in 2020, however, doesn’t mean we can’t imagine it in all its splendor. During a more typical year, the week after Thanksgiving, the mansion closes, and for five days staffers work tirelessly to transform the ornate Victorian home from its everyday splendor to a magnificent winter wonderland. These photographs show the governor’s home in more normal times.

Giant, live trees — from N.C. farms, of course — are the focal points. They’re displayed in four rooms on the first floor, usually the men’s lounge, ladies’ parlor, ballroom and sunroom, as well as in second- and third-floor windows above the home’s main entrance. Evergreen garlands wrap columns and banisters, locally-grown poinsettias fill every nook, and oversized arrangements mixing greenery, baubles, ribbons and more are atop every available surface. Outside, millions of lights twinkle, and blinking orbs shine from the limbs of enormous trees. Traditionally, the first spouse takes charge of the holiday decor, aided by a team of volunteers and input from the N.C. Arts Council. The planning ordinarily starts in July, and while some elements may repeat from one year to the next, “We never want it to look the same within the governorship,” David Robinson, the director of the Executive Mansion, who has managed the home for eight years, has said.

Each first family puts their own touch on the decor. For the Coopers, it has meant hanging stockings that first lady Kristin Cooper made for her family, as well as displaying a Christmas village scene she’s collected over time, complete with a tiny replica of nearby Krispy Kreme. “Mrs. Cooper always puts it together herself,” says Robinson.

While the dazzling trees would normally get the biggest oohs and aahs, it’s the details that will be missed this year: sprigs of mistletoe hung from chandeliers (sometimes cut from the mansion’s grounds), decorations made by local artists and nods to North Carolina’s state symbols woven into the decor. Robinson loves the atmosphere the holiday decorations create: “It’s my favorite time of year.” Even if this is a year like no other.

Photographs by Keith Isaacs

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