Christmas in Newport, Rhode Island | 30 Days of Holiday Magic
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.
The Breakers, Cornelius Vanderbilt II’s 138,300-square-foot tribute to excess, is dripping with Christmas trees, garlands, and giant kissing balls made of poinsettias. And in case you missed the point, there’s gold everywhere. It’s hard to say what’s more eye-catching: the 50×50-foot Great Hall; the 3,500-pound bronze Tiffany lamp over the billiard table; the 12-foot Baccarat crystal chandeliers in the formal dining room; or the mansion’s namesake, the dark sea breaking beyond the expanse of lawn and a spectacular 30-foot drop to the water.
In the ballroom at The Elms, a brass quartet is playing “Amazing Grace” in the shadow of a floor-to-ceiling white poinsettia tree. Once on the brink of being demolished, this relatively modest 1901 mansion makes a luscious impression with delicate shades of white, cream, and beige, and a conservatory that was the garden room in Newport back then. After a day of blowing winter cold, the palms are a heady sight, and the steamy scent of lilies in December is intoxicating.
But it’s time to hit the road back to the 21st century, fortified by a weekend of warm comfort for cold travelers. In this town that celebrates giving for an entire month, it’s easy to conjure up Jimmy Stewart, stumbling through the ruins of Pottersville, finding his way back to the true meaning of Christmas. Or that young Dickens hero, Tiny Tim, whose words communicate our shared yearning for community. It’s here. It’s waiting. And we can create it. We’re all important, “every one.”
Roots of Newport’s Christmas
It started as a movement toward simplicity. In the early 1970s, local resident Ruth Myers wanted to get away from the commercialism of Christmas. At a time when bright multicolored lights and street-spanning garlands dominated, her idea was to light the town with clear bulbs, simulating candlelight. And so a small committee gathered and the idea for Christmas in Newport was born.