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Christmas in Newport, Rhode Island | 30 Days of Holiday Magic

Christmas in Newport, Rhode Island | 30 Days of Holiday Magic
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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 Christmas in Newport, Rhode Island.

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.

We leave for another date with history at the Samuel Whitehorne House. For the next hour or so, we’re plunged into preparations for Christmas in 1820s Newport, a rum-soaked era when residents drank from morning to night because the water wasn’t safe. The house is old (1811) and beautiful, and furnished with pieces by the great American cabinetmakers Townsend and Goddard. We end up in the kitchen talking to Samuel’s second-oldest daughter, Caroline, who’s making gingerbread and mince pies for Christmas. She’s really 21-year-old Kara Evans, a historic preservation major at nearby Salve Regina University, but Kara’s an eerily natural impersonator, with four years of experience under her sash. She answers us in character, and we’re suddenly unsure which tense to use. Present? Past? Where are we, anyway? Caught between times, it would seem, because the ghosts of Newport’s Christmas Past are rising up around us.

By now it’s 3 p.m., teatime at The Francis Malbone House, a guesthouse-only event that we’ve been invited to crash. This former private home dating from 1760 offers 18 beautifully appointed rooms, many ranged around an inner garden courtyard. Afternoon tea sets the bar for tea everywhere on the planet. Innkeeper Will Dewey is a Johnson & Wales grad, and his table includes roasted garlic and potato soup, blueberry butter cakes, veggie crostini, and orange brownies. Naturally there’s loose tea, coffee in a silver urn, and endless fireplaces with logs blazing and people lounging and eating. The inn burns an impressive seven cords of wood a year, and yes, Martha Stewart enjoyed her stay, thank you very much.

Before dinner we duck into the historic Redwood Library and Athenaeum. Constructed in 1750, this architectural treasure is America’s oldest surviving public lending library in its original building. Celery-colored shelves soar skyward in the reading room, and tables are spread with a selection of magazines that would have stunned Newport’s colonists, from Paris Match to Seahorse (international sailing). In the entryway, Dickens Christmas figures are clustered on top of the card catalogue, and that’s when we realize that this library still uses a card catalogue. “It’s really the most reliable,” says the young man working behind the counter. “We value the old ways.”

On to Astors’ Beechwood Mansion. On this sparkling, frosty night, we pull up in front of a stunning palazzo, like vanilla icing rising from the snow. Lights blaze, guests stream toward the doorway … we’ve time-warped to 1891. Passing through the receiving line, we slip upstairs to explore the elaborate themed guestrooms (Morocco, London …). Downstairs in the ballroom, we feast on turkey as the family and servants put on a show. We’re seated with Alison Goodrich, who once played the upstairs maid and whose aunt, Peg Kiernan, has inhabited the role of Mrs. Astor for the past 20 years. No wonder the illusion is convincing. “People get addicted and come back year after year,” Alison says.

We awake to a city of melting snow. Walking up Bellevue, we duck into Annie’s, which serves breakfast all day. Hundreds of Christmas balls hang from the ceiling; the atmosphere is friendly and festive. Once again, we peruse the calendar … So did we end up touring any more mansions? Of course we did. It’s Christmas in Newport, after all, and mansions are as vital to the town’s history as rum running.

Please Note: This information was accurate at the time of publication. When planning a trip, please confirm details by directly contacting any company or establishment you intend to visit.

Updated Thursday, October 8th, 2009

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2 Responses to Christmas in Newport, Rhode Island | 30 Days of Holiday Magic

  1. Pat Sullivan November 3, 2009 at 12:22 pm #

    Wonderful description of Newport. Thank you.

  2. Yvonne Wall December 7, 2010 at 3:23 pm #

    The magic of the internet – a virtual visit! I enjoyed it very much. Thank you.

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