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Finding Christmas in Portsmouth, New Hampshire

Finding Christmas in Portsmouth, New Hampshire
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By the time we rolled into Portsmouth, New Hampshire, we were all ready to be free of the car. As we pushed through Market Square, past the parade of shoppers, lunchtime crowds, and laconic walkers out strolling under the crisp, blue December sky, we couldn’t find a parking spot fast enough.

Portsmouth has that kind of power. You can get around by car, but why bother? Parking is both cheap and plentiful, and with its compact downtown, the place can make a meanderer out of anyone. Even in the cold. Even at Christmas.

Which is why I’d come with my wife, Grace, and our 14-month-old son, Calvin. Back home, the holidays had left us feeling more humbug than festive. Having forgone a tree out of fear that our suddenly mobile son would bring it down, the season had quickly unraveled. The plan to hang some lights got shelved; so did even the simple purchase of a wreath. The lack of snow was the final kicker. With just a few weeks to go before Christmas, our place looked more like March than December.

We needed a shot of Christmas. We needed a few days in Portsmouth, a small city whose pull rests on what it doesn’t offer. If you want puffy Santa Clauses, exuberant chain stores, and a holiday season that comes careening at you, lights blazing, head to your nearest mall. Instead, Portsmouth packs a different kind of charm. In a city that hasn’t just embraced its history but given it a big old bear hug, the past plays an important role. Its official theme is “Vintage Christmas,” and the scene that comes alive is a slice of Americana that’s been relegated to memory in so many other places.

Portsmouth’s downtown sparkles: Window lights dress up the city’s brick buildings, carolers and horse-drawn carriages give the city an Old World ambience, while store owners greet old friends and welcome new ones. A little more formality awaits at The Music Hall, where the stage is stocked with holiday concerts throughout December. And from downtown it’s only a short stroll to Strawbery Banke, a living-history museum that brings together four centuries of American holiday traditions.

If another city does a better job of celebrating Christmas, I have yet to find it.

Our weekend began a few stories above the water at the Ale House Inn, a sleek, 10-guestroom newcomer perched along the Pisquataqua River on Bow Street, just outside the tourist hum of Market Square. We were surrounded by history, but each room came with the modern touches of an iPad and a Keurig coffeemaker. Rooms here aren’t big, but they’re private, and because the hotel sits in the town center, you don’t have to start your car all weekend.

After settling into our room, we headed outside to stretch our legs and find a place to eat. We eventually stationed ourselves at Popovers, a casual eatery on Market Square, where we refueled on pecan-and-gorgonzola salads and clam chowder. We left there, ready to hit the ground running for a round of Christmas shopping, but made it, oh, maybe a hundred yards before we were back inside, at Breaking New Grounds, for a round of hot tea and perhaps the largest cookies on the Seacoast.

Finally, we were ready to shop. On inviting streets dominated by small entrepreneurs, the diversity of places to spend your money runs high. In one short stretch, I counted a custom frame shop, a paper store, a salon, a brewpub, a jeweler, and a Celtic crafts store.

Can it feel a little precious? Sure. But in a city that has twice rebuilt its downtown from devastating fires and then extricated itself from a downtrodden stretch in the 1970s, there’s resilience behind all that cuteness. And downtown business owners are some of the city’s biggest evangelists.

“It got pretty bad,” said Tom Light, whose family owns Hoyt’s Office Products on Market Street. “I remember you didn’t even want to walk down there,” he added, pointing to Commercial Alley, now an upscale stretch of restaurants and shops. “It’s changed a lot. It’s pretty neat.”

A gritty downtown was hard to imagine as we made our way over to Tree House Toys, where a few kids were peering through the storefront window at a train cruising around a Christmas tree. Inside, the shop was packed with finds (dolls, stuffed animals, and a fun collection of marionette cats–yes, we bought one) and customers.

A few doors down we popped into Macro Polo, where the goods had a slightly lighter feel. Roast-beef bubble gum, no-tear toilet paper, and bacon-flavored toothpaste were just a few of the favorites that kept me and a small army of 10-year-old boys reluctant to find the exit. “Hey, Hayden,” marveled one of the kids to his friend, “zombie fingers!”

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.

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