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5 Star Stories: Exclusive behind the scene of decorating Christmas at Graceland

Published: Nov. 23, 2021 at 10:11 PM CST
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MEMPHIS, Tenn. (WMC) - It’s one of those holiday traditions only possible in the Mid-South and a sign of the season that makes us proud to call this place home.

We’re talking about Christmas at Graceland, when the grounds and mansion come to life in all their holiday splendor. But, we got an exclusive behind-the-scenes tour like you’ve never seen or heard before.

As you know, it’s just not Christmas in the Mid-South until the lights of Graceland brighten the night sky in Whitehaven.

Angie Marchese has spent 32 Christmases at Graceland and as the vice president of Archives and Exhibits at Elvis Presley’s Graceland, playing an integral part in keeping Elvis’ holiday traditions alive.

“The lawn ornaments that you see, the Santa and the reindeer, that was Elvis’ very first lawn ornament,” she explained.

According to Marchese, Elvis wanted something special for his first Christmas at Graceland, “kind of a Christmas message to anyone who drove by,” she added.

The Santa Claus moved to the north lawn of the mansion when Elvis started displaying the nativity scene in the center of the yard in the 60s.

“There were two different ones. He had a smaller one and then the following year went to a bigger version that we still use today,” Marchese said.

As for the blue lights lining the driveway, “So, Elvis actually saw a home in California decorated with blue lights on their driveway. So, he called his dad and said, ‘Dad, I want to do this at Graceland. And Vernon’s like, are you sure?’ And so they decorate with the blue lights and then Vernon kept joking that one day, he’d wake up and find an airplane parked on the driveway because we’re so close to the airport and it looked like a runway from the sky,” recalled Marchese.

As beautiful and serene as it all looks, there’s a lot of long hours that go into pulling it off. Marchese gave us the rundown as we watched some of the action.

“The exteriors of Christmas at Graceland start going up in October. Our maintenance team and crew out here, I mean it’s a crew of about seven to eight guys that do all of this. And you’re talking three or four full weeks of doing all of this, including putting all the lights around the house,” she explained.

The maintenance crew actually puts down stakes for the blue lights starting about mid-October and then string the wires. Then comes the placement by hand of the over 2,000 light bulbs that line the driveway.

Then, the week before Thanksgiving, a staff of about 20 “Christmas elves,” and this year, one news reporter and videographer, take on the mansion’s interior.

As Marchese explained, “We are literally like Elvis’ elves scattered around the house, putting up trees, putting up decorations, making sure all of the presents are perfect.”

According to the archival V.P., “another 2,000 lights go up inside, 40 poinsettias that are replaced every week because we have real poinsettias in the mansion. So, that’s 40 times six weeks. That’s 240 poinsettias that we use in the mansion,” she said.

There are also two Christmas trees with over 300 ornaments and a box of original tinsel. Every year, staff members place and painstakingly remove each strand of the same tinsel Elvis used every year.

Marchese said, “It was just a family tradition, bring prosperity into the new year and just good luck and it was just something that they did and we continue to do it today.”

The tinsel is tucked away in a box after each season and it, along with many of Elvis’ original tree ornaments, are kept in a secret room downstairs, which Marchese was gracious enough to show us. Decorating inside the mansion was a family affair until the early ‘90s.

“When I first started, Aunt Delta was living in the house. So, Aunt Delta would put up all the Christmas decorations. So, literally, you would work one day and nothing was up and you come to work the next day, and tree’s in the dining room, there’s garland on the staircase and, ‘Oh it’s Christmas at Graceland,’ you know,” described Marchese.

After Delta Mae Presley Biggs passed in 1993, staff then had the opportunity to look through the archives and add back the traditions that Elvis began, “including adding the white Christmas tree into the living room.

We had done some research and there’s a famous photo of Elvis and the Mafia at Christmastime,” Marchese said. “In a corner of the photo, you can see a branch of a white Christmas tree with Christmas ornaments on it. So, we asked Priscilla and Priscilla goes, ‘Oh yeah, there was always a tree in the living room but Delta had just simplified things when she lived here. I think the biggest change was being able to actually find the original red Christmas drapes and change the drapes out like Elvis did.”

As for the Christmas tree in the dining room, it’s where staffers hang the original Christmas ornaments. Our own Kym Clark, wearing white gloves so as not to damage it in any way, was honored to place the first original ornament on that tree this year. As Clark described it, “one of the original ornaments that Elvis, Priscilla, and a young Lisa Marie hung on their trees every year -- it’s about 60 years old. Such an honor!”

While on tour, you’ll also likely spot some of the toys that Lisa Marie was actually given at Christmas as well. According to Marchese, Christmas was Elvis’ favorite holiday.

“And it really, I think it all goes back to him being a giver and loved to get people’s reactions when he would give them things,” Marchese said. “So, decorating for people who came out here to see his house was something that was really important that he wanted them to have that Christmas message, that Christmas feeling,” Marchese explained, adding, “So, it really is Elvis’ home is everyone’s home, and everyone’s welcome here at Graceland. So, being able to share Christmas with everybody is always a lot of fun.”

The Christmas lights at Graceland and the event center will be up through Elvis’ birthday on January 8, another Elvis Christmas tradition. In addition to the regular daily tours, there are also special afternoon Christmas tours, as well as virtual tours. For more details, click here.

We’ve also included a special tour of the house with Marchese, who shows us the first Christmas gift Priscilla ever gave Elvis after she moved into Graceland.

A Mid-South holiday tradition that draws visitors from around the globe is aglow in Memphis. The lights at Graceland are lit for the holidays, a feat that takes months to make happen.

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