For more than a decade, three remarkable friends have been bringing holiday magic to Vermont’s Wilburton Inn.
By Kim Knox Beckius
Oct 20 2022
For one peaceful evening in Manchester, Vermont’s Wilburton Inn, the fresh-cut tree in the grand living room will stand tall, stout, and fragrant, but bare. The tumult of boxes, dragged down from the attic, will sit untouched. Canine inn concierge Jetson, a floppy-eared Cavalier King Charles spaniel, won’t have to share his mansion with a sleigh-load of other pups. And the Wilburton’s mischievous angels—three women from New York state whose friendship has been a constant through the ups and downs of four decades—will exchange gifts and reminisce about Christmases past in their head-to-toe-matching sleepwear: red robes, sequined hair bows, and black PJs printed with gingerbread girls teasing, “Bite Me.”
Tomorrow is Thursday, December 2. Tomorrow, three intense days of decorating and joy-making begin. “Even though it’s work here, it’s different work,” says trio member Julia Scarincio.
What started as a lark—decorating the tree while the Wilburton Inn’s owners slept—has become something more than a 16-year tradition. It’s a commitment. A challenge. And after missing 2020 due to Covid restrictions, “the girls” have surprises up their fur-trimmed sleeves. It’s all a bit like improv theater, with twice-daily costume changes. No outfit is ever repeated.
“We don’t even know what’s going to happen next,” says Pamela Ogden. She’s the eldest of the three. The ringleader. A devoted grandmother and daycare provider who lets her hair down and her language slip when she’s at the Wilburton. The women are particularly secretive—but swaggeringly confident—about their entry in the upcoming Manchester Merriment Lighted Tractor Parade, just three days away.
Up the mansion’s ornate staircase they climb, retreating to Room 5—the Best Friends Room, named in their honor. Their ruby robes are rhinestoned with their first initials on the back: P, J, and J. Janice Blair, a nurse, is the youngest. Dozens of photos of the trio are on display in the hallway outside their floral-papered guest room. Whether they’re dressed in matching holiday garb or springtime getups like butterfly costumes, they’re all smiles during their twice-annual stays.
Yet it was a life-changing event that first brought them here from across the New York border 17 winters ago. Pamela’s marriage was ending when they arrived at this 11-bedroom Harvard-brick manse. “I was in a bad place,” she says. “I told the girls, ‘I need to get away.’”
“We did not know what an inn was,” says Julia, who manages a clothing store in Lake George. And they were unnerved to learn they’d be left to their own devices for the night while the Wilburton’s owners, Dr. Albert and Georgette Levis, returned to their own home. But soon the 1902 mansion, the hilltop centerpiece of a collection of rental homes and guest units that now sleeps 100 individual or group travelers, “turned into our soft haven,” Julia says. “The fireplace. Being together. It was everything.”
Back home in upstate New York, with a baby and a broken heart, Pamela printed photos from their Vermont stay to fill spaces that once held pictures of her ex. “Before long, the whole wall was Wilburton. I knew it was real love,” she says. During the girls’ second annual holiday-season visit, it was her idea to decorate the Christmas tree under cover of night.
“You’re going to be in trouble,” Janice cautioned before pitching in.
Julia was hesitant, too. “I’m not a rule breaker.”
But when innkeeper Georgette swept in the next morning, she gushed, “It’s the most beautiful tree I’ve ever seen.”
A Greek Holocaust survivor and eminent psychiatrist, Albert Levis has always preferred real estate investments to money in the bank. Still, his family was shocked when they left his 50th birthday dinner at the Wilburton Inn in 1987 with a plan hatched to purchase the property that their waiter told them was about to be auctioned.
Georgette intuited from the start that stunning mountain views weren’t all visitors craved. Guests came to the inn seeking connection. They were looking for something more in their lives. “People like being part of something bigger. Everyone likes feeling purposeful,” says her daughter Melissa, a writer and songstress whose children’s band, Moey’s Music Party, has a global following on Spotify. As she sings in Wilburton promo videos (and live, at the inn’s summer soirees), “We didn’t buy it to run it like a Hyatt.” And indeed, the Wilburton has always kept its own beat.
Even before Georgette’s passing in 2014, Melissa and her three siblings—playwright Tajlei, farmer and bread baker Oliver, and psychologist Max—had begun to lend their ideas and creative talents to the inn’s offerings. And here, their father began realizing his dream of utilizing the mansion and its expansive grounds as an education center, where his theories about conflict resolution and the creative process could be explained via sculpture installations, exhibits, workshops, and everyday conversations.
Making Spirits Bright
Dr. Levis’s teachings can be challenging to grasp, but at their heart, they emphasize wellness over illness in the arena of mental health. Every aspect of the Wilburton fosters the ability to look on the bright side of life and to not take things too seriously—playfulness, in other words.
“Everyone is welcome here; you can bring yourself,” says Melissa, who loves it when the mansion’s formal lines dissolve into a magnificent blank canvas for guests’ creative self-expression. You don’t need to cram your overnight bag with ugly Christmas sweaters and twinkling headgear. Then again, if you want to escape the mad world we live in, perhaps you do.
“The costumes make people want to talk to us,” Julia says. Her snowman dress is cinched at the waist with a red, white, and green scarf, and her shaggy white fur boots glow with mini lights. The triplets are back from Thursday morning breakfast in the village, where they caused their usual stir. Now, their labor of love begins in earnest. It’s not just the towering pine that cries out to be adorned. As Georgette’s portrait above the roaring wood fire surveys the scene, the women trim the elaborately carved original mantelpiece, the windows, the doorframes. It’s an all-day undertaking that will continue late into the night, when no one else is stirring.
The earliest guests to arrive, Michael and Nancy Kaleski, help hang ornaments while their four-legged companion, Pippi, gets reacquainted with Jetson. Like most who book dog-friendly rooms and cottages the first weekend in December, they’re here for the merry madness of the Wilburton’s annual Canine Christmas Slumber Party. Others who are gathering on this hilltop have come to celebrate Hanukkah with extended family. “Frequently, we have simultaneous joy going on,” says Melissa.
“Our dad loves to see the inn used so well,” Tajlei chimes in.
Janice takes extra care fluffing the tinsel tree outside the Best Friends Room. To members of the public who will parade through during Saturday’s regional Holiday Inn Tour, coordinated by the Shires of Vermont, this little fuchsia tree won’t appear to be anything more than a store-bought accent. But it speaks of intimate connections. Before 2020, the women had missed decorating the Wilburton only once, when Pamela was diagnosed with breast cancer and required surgery in Maryland. Her best friends spent two weeks by her side. Julia quit her job to be there; Janice took all of her vacation time. And Melissa sent this shiny tree, along with Wilburton T-shirts and robes. “I wasn’t scared or anything,” Pamela remembers. “These girls were with me. They never left me once.”
The winter sun shoots through my third-floor window, rousing me from the purple-velvet-cloaked four-poster bed. I tiptoe downstairs to see what the elves have accomplished overnight. I peek at the tree: gorgeous. But the hubbub of ladders and lights and whirring vacuums sends me retreating to a bench seat on the staircase landing, clutching a steamy mug of joe.
Meesha Kropp breezes through, surveys the cleanup chaos, and proclaims, “Glitter days are here again!” The inn’s wedding planner, she also runs the front desk; she witnesses the transformation that occurs between arrival and departure for practically every guest, not just the newlyweds. In a phrase, she’s captured a universal hope for this holiday season: sparkling normalcy. If the pandemic has a silver lining, it’s the lessons it’s taught grown-ups about appreciating things previously taken for granted.
I’m eagerly awaiting Friday’s costume reveal, and Pamela, Julia, and Janice do not disappoint. They strut down the Wilburton staircase dressed as Santa’s three wives, with coordinating red velour and white fur shopping totes. And they’re off to Manchester Village to stimulate smiles and the local economy. But first: a traditional stop at the Equinox for lunch with “Doc,” as they affectionately call Dr. Levis.
“The ho ho hos are here!” Pamela announces as they stride through the elegant historic hotel in high-heeled black boots with white fur cuffs. The silliness turns serious over comfort food. This is the first time Doc has heard the full origin story behind the women’s cherished visits. It’s an emotionally raw revelation for Pamela, but one with a plot twist: She and her estranged husband, Malcolm, reunited 15 years later after taking their daughter to prom together. He’ll be driving the Wilburton float in tomorrow’s parade, with Doc and Tajlei seated in a place of honor on the flatbed. One float secret is out of Santa’s bag.
Bark! The Herald Angels Sing
A wild dash of events unfolds now, starting with Friday night’s Ugly Christmas Sweater Fashion Parade and Party. Guests and their pups have dressed not just for portrait photos but to win bragging rights and gag prizes. The breeds are diverse, and so are the owners: couples of all ages, best friends, a mom and a daughter. Sharon Spevock drove solo from West Virginia with little Winnie—and a weekend-long lineup of matching owner-and-dog attire. When the Food Network’s Cupcake Wars winner and entrepreneur Heather Saffer joins in dancing the hora around the menorah, so does her beloved dog, Donald.
It feels like one big doggy-adoring family when the group reconvenes for a Saturday morning stroll through town. By Saturday night’s Slumber Party and Fireside Sing-a-Long, the comfort level is so high, we’re all in jammies (Pamela, Julia, and Janice have donned matching Rudolph onesies), belting carols, and sharing holiday memories from varied religious and ethnic traditions.
The fire and newfound friendships provide a welcome surge of warmth. Just hours before, the outdoor temperature was plummeting toward the teens as we waited for the start of the lighted tractor parade. For the first time, the girls had invited their families to join the assembled crowd. Janice’s mom, dad, and husband made the trip, as did Julia’s son and daughter-in-law and Pamela’s four daughters, their husbands, and all six grandchildren. At last, they would glimpse the wonder these three conjure every time they slip into “only in Manchester” mode.
Twinkling tractors and floats rumble by, with children waving, music playing, and faux snow flying. And then, a sight that surpasses imagination: A dapper Doc and a divine Tajlei wave from their seat at the rear of the Wilburton’s flashy winter wonderland float. All eyes, though, especially the children’s, are on the three snow princesses with their cascading blonde wigs, fur-trimmed capes, and illuminated tiaras. No regal waves of the hand from these three—they’re kicking up their white go-go boots, hands in the air.
The crowd disperses quickly after Santa and Mrs. Claus appear. I was the only soul standing by, shivering, while the judges deliberated. I already knew, though, who’d be bringing home the $300 prize for best overall float. Because in every good holiday story, it is the loving, the selfless, the generous of spirit who experience miracles. Who reap joy as their reward.