Newport, RI: 30 Days of Christmas
It’s a dark, Dickensian night, rolled up in a snow globe and shaken. Snow falls quietly, caught in the glow of a nearby streetlamp. Thick and soft, it muffles the sound of spinning tires and drifts toward a nearby tavern doorway. We follow it in. Outside, ghostly ships creak in the harbor, their masts rimmed in powder. White lights glimmer in shop windows, and passersby hug their warmth closer. The sky is dove-gray fading to steel, and all around is anticipation of the holiday season.
The blizzard blows us back in time. Or so it seems. Newport, Rhode Island, during its mansion-building frenzy? Slave trading during the mid-1700s? At its founding in 1639? It’s all here, layered over itself like successive snowstorms. The snow swirls blindly now, fat, furry flakes piling up, but we’re inside the Brick Alley Pub & Restaurant on Thames Street, up to our elbows in sweet-potato fries and warming our bellies with a robust glass of Malbec.
Some things are not what they seem. And that’s what we’re about to experience, here in this lovely place synonymous with the summer wealth of the late 19th century.
Of course it’s all that, too. The gilded homes of Astors and Vanderbilts sparkle about town and along Bellevue Avenue like ornaments on a decadent Christmas tree. But for the past 39 years, there’s been another Newport tradition in the making: a noncommercial Christmas bent on recapturing the roots of this overspent holiday; a month-long celebration of giving and goodwill hosted by residents and shopkeepers, who raise thousands of dollars to pour back into charities throughout their community. A Christmas Carol meets It’s a Wonderful Life, only this one’s for real.
“It wasn’t meant to be something to extend the tourist season,” says Roy Lauth, master of ceremonies for Christmas in Newport since 1992. His father, John, was one of the original founders. “It’s our Christmas celebration, for us, but we invite everyone to come and share it with us.” So we’ve come in search of Christmas, and the eerie, unexpected snow this weekend is our doorway back, our portal to the past. It lays a film over the picture like sepia, only it’s the mysterious blue-gray light of snow and sky and sea.
Next morning we set off from The Hotel Viking, an elegant spot at the beginning of Bellevue Avenue, built by Newport’s high society for their unwanted houseguests and overspill. It’s an easy walk to town, and with our Christmas in Newport calendar in hand, we’ve picked a few destinations for the day: the Samuel Whitehorne House for a glimpse of Christmas circa 1820; afternoon tea at The Francis Malbone House; and a Victorian Christmas dinner at the Astors’ mansion, Beechwood. In between, there’s time to explore.
Making up our minds isn’t easy, though; the calendar of events is extensive, and we’ve already missed the Harbor Lights boat parade; The Nutcracker at Rosecliff; and Newport’s largest outdoor caroling event. Oh, and let’s not forget December 1st’s opening ceremonies in historic Washington Square. “It’s an old tradition in Newport to fire the cannon to gather people on the green,” Lauth says. “Some people come every year. They came as kids, and now they’re bringing their kids. This year the park was filled.”
We drift down Bellevue Avenue toward the waterfront through a foot of unplowed snow. The sky is blue, the sea sparkles, and town is clamped shut like a bivalve. With Thames Street slow to awaken after the storm, we explore a maze of back streets and are bowled over by the multitude of 18th- and 19th-century buildings, many rescued by tobacco heiress Doris Duke. Beautifully decorated, they all share a common element, and the original inspiration behind Christmas in Newport: simple white lights shining in the windows. Quite by accident, we also happen upon the NRF Museum Store, the official gift shop for the Newport Restoration Foundation. Here we learn that through her foundation, Duke singlehandedly bought and saved 83 buildings in town. In fact, Newport boasts the largest collection of wooden Colonial structures, many of them homes, in the U.S.
Down by the wharf, where sailing masts pitch and sway over frigid water, we stumble upon the oddly enchanting Seamen’s Chapel, a tiny room upstairs at the Seamen’s Church Institute. Dim and small, like the inside of a shell, it feels exotically Byzantine, with ochre frescoes and a shell-studded shrine to the sea. Unexpected beauty, and just what we’re looking for.