Portsmouth, NH: A Timeless Christmas
Christmases past and present blend seamlessly in downtown Portsmouth, New Hampshire. Walking along the brick sidewalks recently dusted with snow, it’s easy to picture the streets filled with horse-drawn buggies and carolers carrying lanterns.I love to walk along the Piscataqua River, past tugboats strung with Christmas lights. Prescott Park features views of the rushing river and of Kittery, Maine, directly across the channel. Although it’s winter and undeniably cold, the coastal air and lapping waves are irresistible.
But the most compelling draw to Portsmouth this season awaits in the past: Strawbery Banke, a living-history museum on the site of the town’s original seaport, brings the holidays alive with interactive exhibits spanning the eras between the late 1600s and the 1950s.
During Strawbery Banke’s annual Candlelight Stroll, the walkways are illuminated by hundreds of luminaria. Paths lead to Colonial and Federal homes that are filled with period decor and costumed interpreters.
The Goodwin Mansion, once the home of a New Hampshire governor and adorned with lavish Victorian decorations, is by far the most romantic of the homes. As I walk from home to home, carolers and a fife and drum band provide good cheer. Steady flames of a nearby bonfire add warmth to the cold evening air and offer respite for icy feet and hands. Across the green is the Shapiro House, where a 1919 Hanukkah celebration is being held, complete with latkes (traditional potato pancakes) frying on the stove in the tiny kitchen. The alluring smell reminds me that there are many tempting tastes waiting to be discovered in the modern downtown. As I leave Strawbery Banke, I wave to Saint Nicholas, encircled by children of all ages.
I did not come to Portsmouth in December to sleep, but my bed rests in a lovely spot: the Sise Inn on Court Street, only a five-minute walk to the center of town. In the morning I reenter Christmas present while dining at a lavish brunch buffet at the Wentworth by the Sea hotel on Great Island. It’s fun watching the kids crowd around Santa, who listens carefully to their wishes. Nestled among the buffet’s ice sculptures are a towering gingerbread house and animated elves. (Fewer than three miles away, the Sheraton Harborside also offers a breakfast buffet every Sunday in December with Mr. and Mrs. Claus. The couple happily pose for pictures with the hotel’s stunning 12-foot tree as a perfect backdrop.)
My afternoon is all about music. At the historic Music Hall, the New Hampshire Symphony Orchestra graces the stage with its Holiday Pops concert, and within minutes I find myself humming along to some of the more popular holiday tunes.
In the evening I am immersed in gloom, fear, and hope. The gem of the local drama scene is the annual performance of Charles Dickens’ A Christmas Carol at The Players’ Ring. This intimate theater makes me feel like I’m at a private performance with close friends. The acting is superb — think real tears and a convincing curmudgeon (one of Scrooge’s fits is downright frightening). Beware the truly haunting ghost of Christmas past, which is a testament to the technical staff’s expertise in special effects.
Of course, Christmas shopping lends its own special effect to a Portsmouth stroll. Boutiques and galleries offer everything from whimsical stocking stuffers and trendy clothing to expensive jewelry and handmade furniture and crafts. Many of the downtown businesses stay open late during December, and a few serve wine and cheese.
As I continue to walk, the warmth of a cafe beckons. Breaking New Grounds, in the center of Market Square, has a wall of international coffees and teas. Local musicians often play here in the evening, and the cafe’s brownies are fresh, delicious, and more than enough for two. Try the hot chocolate — it’s thick and rich, but not too sweet. For dinner I head to Lindbergh’s Crossing, a small and intimate eatery tucked away on Ceres Street, overlooking the harbor.
After dinner, I pass again through Market Square, where the city’s Christmas tree sparkles. At the annual tree lighting (this year on December 1), you’ll find bagpipers and festive carolers, with local businesses passing out cookies and drinks.
The following evening brings the Holiday Parade, a staple for more than 25 years, with a spirited array of floats, bands, and people dressed in costume. The scene gets only more beautiful when it snows. Even Scrooge might smile then.