Teams of floral designers and stylists bedeck the mansions on Beacon Hill
with ornate displays of lights, berries, garlands, and wreaths.
An insider’s tour of a stately city in its most festive season.
The well-heeled shoppers on Charles Street look a little precarious as they dodge puddles carrying the sort of long-handled, thick-cardstock shopping bags that whisper, “Money was spent here.” On any day, Beacon Hill’s central business district bustles with society doyennes and young professionals doing their daily rounds of butcher, baker, and party-dress maker. But on a gray December afternoon, these errands bring a special sense of urgency as the clock ticks down the shopping hours until Christmas morning.
The merchants here know their audience, ornamenting shop windows with swaths of fresh pine garland, twinkle lights, cotton-batting snowdrifts, and hand-blown glass ornaments. Up on West Cedar Street, the display in front of Rouvalis Flowers is so festively done up with wreaths and garlands, pinecones, red berry branches, and paperwhites, it’s as if Charles Dickens, that great lover of London’s holiday markets, time-traveled to 2016 and opened a florist shop. The display of holiday abundance is fully concentrated in this monied neighborhood, and walking the streets brings to mind every beloved Christmas cliché: the holly and the ivy, the bearing of gifts, Christmases past and present. But you’ll find these moments in every corner of the city, particularly those frequented by travelers.
So, like Dickens’s Scrooge and ferrying ghosts, let’s take to the winds, flying over the hill to the Common, where skaters circle the public Frog Pond rink in hats and light sweaters, thanks to milder-than-normal temperatures. Business at the hot cocoa stand is lagging, but down the narrow alley of Winter Place in the warren of streets leading from the Common to Downtown Crossing, revelers at Yvonne’s, once home to the storied Locke-Ober restaurant where JFK ate his lobster stew, are tucking into truffle-dusted chateaubriand served by white-jacketed waiters. And past the Common, the Public Garden’s yew trees, wrapped in swirls of twinkling lights, line the central path with symmetrical sparkle. The swan boats are gone, having made their winter migration to the home basements of the Paget family, fourth- and fifth-generation descendants of Robert Paget, who built the first boat in 1877. But here at the edge of Back Bay, where mansion windows are lit with candles and Newbury Street shop doors swing open and closed, the young winter season is bursting into life.
Christmastime in Boston is a glimpse into a town at its most traditional. If the 21st-century City on a Hill has come to identify itself as a place of innovation and wealth, of biotechnology breakthroughs and robotics, at Christmas it seems to ease off the accelerator and return to a gentler pace. Residents embrace the familiar: sipping hot chocolate at L.A. Burdick on Clarendon Street; lining up outside the Paramount Theater for the 46th production of Langston Hughes’s Black Nativity; feeling some childlike awe as the Christmas tree in the Boston Ballet’s The Nutcracker magically uncoils to its full 42-foot height. It becomes, once more, a small and stately city, rooted in history.
The following hotels, organized by price, offer not just excellent accommodations and sparkling décor, but close proximity to the heart of the city.
High End ($300 and over)
The Liberty Hotel: The famously revamped Charles Street Jail is still one of Boston’s hottest lodgings, with a view of the Charles and easy access to Beacon Hill. Don’t miss the upside-down Christmas trees in the lobby. From $629 per night. 617-224-4000; libertyhotel.com
Boston Harbor Hotel: A stone’s throw from Quincy Market, this waterfront hotel hosts a holiday skating rink and boasts an always-changing gingerbread masterpiece in the lobby. From $357 per night. 617-439-7000; bhh.com
Moderate (Under $300)
Eliot Hotel: A charming boutique hotel located along the glorious display of the Commonwealth Avenue Mall. From $195 per night. 617-267-1607; eliothotel.com
Fairmont Copley Plaza: This 1912 landmark wears its history with panache and puts you in the center of Back Bay. From $262 per night. 866-267-5300; fairmont.com/copley-plaza-boston
Affordable (Under $200)
Boston Park Plaza: Just off the Common, this 1927 mainstay piles on the sparkle at Christmastime. From $189 per night. 617-426-2000; bostonparkplaza.com
Omni Parker House: Charles Dickens stayed here (he gave his first public reading of A Christmas Carol at the time), and it’s the home of Boston Cream Pie. Plus, it’s a stone’s throw from Quincy Market. From $125 per night. 617-227-8600; omnihotels.com/hotels/boston-parker-house
With a respectful nod to the beauty of a well-placed single candle in a 12-pane window, we present a guide to Boston’s grandest holiday light displays.
Illuminations Tour: For a single evening, the Somerville Arts Council hosts trolley tours around the city’s most enthusiastic residential light displays, some of which turn entire streets into dizzying high-wattage wonderlands (the SAC’s website calls it “folk artistry”). Enjoy cocoa and cookies at City Hall, where the tour begins and ends. Details: December 17. somervilleartscouncil.org/illuminationstour
Christopher Columbus Waterfront Park: In summer, the 260-foot-long trellis that snakes through the North End’s prettiest waterfront park is draped in wisteria. Come December, the entire promenade is illuminated by a sparkling blue and white LED light installation out of a 6-year-old’s Frozen-inspired dream. Details: November 21 through February. foccp.org
Blink! Faneuil Hall: With 350,000 LED lights synced to a festive soundtrack, plus one giant fully lit tree and several minis, Faneuil Hall and Quincy Market offer the most concentrated holiday bling (plus lots of shopping options, mostly chains). Details: November 20-January 2. faneuilhallmarketplace.com/blink
Commonwealth Mall: The elm-lined park running down the center of Commonwealth Avenue becomes one of the city’s loveliest sites, a twinkling forest lined with well-lit Back Bay townhouses and mansions. Details: December 1-February 1, cityofboston.gov/Parks
Boston Public Garden and Boston Common: The city’s official Christmas tree (always a gift from the good citizens of Nova Scotia) is located on the Common near the Frog Pond, but the entire expanse is lit to varying degrees. The prettiest spot, in our view, is the central promenade of the Garden, with its tastefully lit yews. Details: December 3-early January. cityofboston.gov/Parks
It’s Saturday at Symphony Hall, 30 minutes before the start of one of the two weekend Holiday Pops children’s concerts that run throughout December. Little girls in red dresses wait expectantly—there’s a rumor that Santa will be here. One mother, wearing a tartan skirt that must leave the closet this one day each year, wrangles two wriggling toddlers in taffeta. Inside, families take their seats in the balcony or crowd around the tiny tables where nimble servers bear cheese plates and Chardonnay (cocoa for the kids). The Pops have done these shows sinceArthur Fiedler inaugurated the first “Pops Christmas Party” in 1973. Evening shows are for everyone,but best for those over, say, age 10. The daytime children’s concerts, in contrast, are perfectly constructed for short attention spans: For every rollicking orchestral rendition of “Tomorrow Is My Dancing Day,” there’s an animated reading of The Christmas Story with cartoon images projected on a giant screen. And then, ho-ho-ho! Santa enters stage right and makes his way to the stage for a little shtick with conductor Keith Lockhart.
Over in Cambridge, where the holidays take a more overtly multicultural tack, erstwhile hippies and Harvard intelligentsia ring in the winter solstice with The Christmas Revels, an annual celebration of holiday traditions from around the world that weave together dancing, music, carols, and drama. This year’s focus: Acadia and Cajun country. For many families, Christmas simply couldn’t be itself without the Revels and its midshow community dance through the halls of Harvard’s Sanders Theater. For others, it’s a performance of Handel’s Messiah or A Christmas Celtic Sojourn. Choose your tradition, and trust it’ll be there next year, unless those little girls in taffeta grow up to experience their Christmas revelry via Occulus Rift.
Not all of Boston’s charms are vintage or antique. The Boston Public Market, est. 2015, is the city’s long-overdue, year-round indoor food market, a more modest variation on Seattle’s Pike Place or San Francisco’s Ferry Plaza building. Inside, 39 permanent vendors, plus seasonal pop-ups, sell everything from cheeses from Vermont’s Jasper Hill Farm to steaming cups of Taza chocolate to crusty loaves of ciabatta from Mamadou’s bakery. There’s grass-fed beef, seasonal produce (lots of apples, brassicas and roots this time of year), fresh cider donuts, and a bevy of eat-in options of every stripe. Stay for lunch, then shop for your foodie friends. There are treasures here in bottles and jars, bags of sweets, gift baskets, and plenty of free samples.
From here, you can head across the Rose Kennedy Greenway for a stroll up Hanover Street, the North End’s main thoroughfare, and sample Italian holiday treats at Modern Pastry, or grab an espresso at Caffe Vittoria, now in its 87th year. Walk a little farther and you’ll find the brick-lined Paul Revere Mall, with its view of the Old North Church and rows of linden trees lined up like ready militia. In the center, a single tree swathed in simple white bulbs stands as the sole Christmas decoration. Seen at night, it gives the park a surprising stillness amidst the press of double-parked cars and waiting diners huddled outside the door of Giacomo’s Ristorante on Hanover. Pause here for a moment.
The changing population of the North End (good-bye Nonno, hello nanotechies) has given rise to a phalanx of boutiques and gift shops along Hanover and Salem Streets, but for the quintessential shopping experience, head back to the Hill where we began. Charles Street is Boston’s prettiest place to shop, even if your budget stops with the window displays. Want to serve a Christmas goose? Buy it at Savenor’s, once the city’s only name in gourmet grocers and still one of the best. Black Ink stocks quirky, charming gifts for your quirkiest, most charming friends: Japanese kitchen sponges shaped like emoji cats, sea salt soaps, vintage print calendars. For the children, there are preppy and colorful togs and toys at The Red Wagon. At Blackstone’s, a well-curated general gift shop, a small glass case displays an irresistible collection of Wee Forest Folk, little fairy-tale sculptures, mostly of mice, handmade by the Peterson family in Carlisle, Massachusetts. Think you’re too cool for tchotchkes? Try to resist these.
Then there’s Newbury Street, Boston’s answer to Madison Avenue. All the major designers are here, kept afloat, in part, by the international students who drop their “winter” Mercedes off with the valet to buy this season’s riding hats at Chanel. For more local flavor, browse artisan goods at Simon Pearce, but for a lighter density of national chains, the South End is home to small boutiques like Sault (men’s clothing with a nautical vibe), Farm & Fable (upscale and vintage kitchenware), and Olives & Grace (artisan goods). And lest our four-legged acquaintances be forgot, there’s a world of beribboned chew toys, not to mention gingerbread biscuits at Polka Dog Bakery.
In an ideal world, Copley Square would be transformed into a monthlong, German-style, outdoor Christmas market stocked with local foods and crafts, music, and mulled wine. Absent that, the city provides some excellent (and climate-controlled) alternatives. The following stand out for the quality of their wares.
SoWa Holiday Market: It’s a weekend-long winter incarnation of the popular South End Open Market that turns the Benjamin Franklin Institute into a one-stop shop. Look for: nature-inspired linocut prints from Hearth and Harrow (hearthandharrow.com); charming encaustic works from Bumble Belly Designs (bumblebelly.com). Details: December 10-11. sowaholidaymarket.net
Harvard Square Holiday Fairs: This Cambridge mainstay has a more classic lineup of potters, fiber artists, printmakers, and the like. Look for: Japanese-inspired woodblock prints by Matt Brown (ooloopress.com); tin can lanterns by Lennie Kaumzha (tincanlights.com). Details: December 10-11, 16-18, 21-24.harvardsquareholidayfair.com
Craft Boston: Fine art meets craft at this higher-end show featuring contemporary artists from around the country. Look for: cityscape pottery by Nicole Aquillano (nicoleaquillano.com); geometric gold-on-silver jewelry from Thea Izzi (theaizzi.com). Details: December 2-4. societyofcrafts.org
Cultural Survival Bazaar: A celebration of arts and crafts from the world’s indigenous peoples, with an emphasis on ethical sourcing and fair trade. Look for: Wampum jewelry from Wampanoag artist Elizabeth James Perry (elizabethjamesperry.com); upcycled fabric bags from India; colorful tinwork from Puebla, Mexico. Details: December 16-18. cs.org
Boston’s restaurant scene has exploded logarithmically in the past five years. Throw a stone in any direction and you’ll hit a good, if not great, eatery. But several stand out for holiday dining: the aforementioned Yvonne’s, with its old-school lunchtime feasts and glittery bar and dinner scene. And then there’s No. 9 Park, Barbara Lynch’s first game-changing entry into the Boston restaurant world, now in its 18th year. It remains elegant and relevant, with an enviable view of the Common, where elms and oaks are draped haphazardly with thin, multicolored twinkle lights. (Note to the Parks Department: More lights on fewer trees would have more impact.) Still, you can watch the
Frog Pond skaters and salute the great bauble of a gold-plated dome atop the Statehouse. Dinner service is a seductive and pricey enterprise, but we love the holiday lunch series, which brings all the Yuletide spirit with a gentler price tag at $52 for three courses. Yes, it’s a splurge, but a leisurely meal here qualifies as a special occasion. Here are girlfriends stretching a lunch break, bankers celebrating a good year, manor-born merrymakers. There are four champagnes sold by the flute and warm rolls that taste of milk and butter. The chestnut farfalle with pheasant and black trumpet mushrooms brings to mind an Italian forest made edible, something served after the hunt. If you can, plan for a late lunch: The Common is most beautiful as daylight fades and holiday lights sparkle.
Another choice option: the moderately priced Sea Grille at the Rowes Wharf Hotel. Few views can match that of Boston Harbor framed by the hotel’s grand central rotunda, and after a watercress and beet salad or lobster roll, you can spend an hour skating at the hotel’s outdoor rink.
Then there are the other feasts. Several restaurants—among them, Nebo, Marliave, and L’Espalier—make the traditional Italian Feast of the Seven Fishes (or some variation) in a nod to Boston’s coastal heritage. And at the Fairmont Copley Hotel, Executive Chef Laurent Poulain takes over the mirrored lobby for the annual Holiday Bacchanal on December 21, transforming the space into a Versailles-inspired winter wonderland where guests feast on five courses at long communal tables.
But, of all the city’s delights, one stands above, whether you celebrate the holiday of Santa Claus or “Jesus is the Reason.” The Candlelight Carols ceremony at Copley Square’s Trinity Church, a tradition since 1909, is quintessentially Boston: historic, dignified, and contemplative, walking the same razor’s edge of grandeur and restraint that marks all our greatest public institutions, from the Copley library to the Statehouse. The church resembles no European cathedral, yet boasts the same jaw-dropping wonder, from the William Morris stained glass to the encaustic murals by John La Farge. Simple pine garlands swag along the balconies and pulpit, while unadorned trees stand silent on the altar. No twinkle lights necessary, nothing to distract from the music and the candles’ glow.
Here, all races, all ages, all family configurations fill the rows. To grab a coveted seat for the free Saturday services, parishioners and non-parishioners alike line up by 2 p.m. for the 4 p.m. service (the 7 p.m. service tends to be less crowded). Others, less inclined to stand in the cold, buy tickets ($45-$110) for a benefit service on Sunday. The service is the same for all.
Rector Samuel T. Lloyd III begins with a short greeting followed by an invocation: “Welcome to the mystery of Christmas.” The lights dim and then a lone child’s voice soars into the dome and is met by a trio from across the nave. It is Richard Marlow’s Advent Responsory. More voices join in from the entrance, where the larger choir has gathered. Two conductors, working fore and aft, hold it all together. Now come the choir and acolytes, candles in hand, filling the church with golden light. The music swells with brass and tympany. And behind the stained-glass panels, the daylight is dimming to a deep blue glow.
Congregants join in for sing-alongs of “O Come, All Ye Faithful” and “O Little Town of Bethlehem,” but during the offering hymn, the choir holds the stage:
Sleep, sleep, sleep, ‘tis the eve of our Savior’s birth.
The night is peaceful all around you,
Close your eyes, let sleep surround you.
The soft lights that hang from the ceiling now dim until they are outshone by candlelight. A hush settles, as soft as fresh snow. Acolytes holding pillar candles position themselves around the nave. In Latin, the choir sings
Warm and heavy as pure gold
And the angels sing softly
It is a moment as close to heaven as human hands and voices have ever crafted. To be amid people in a room so full and so fully at peace. This is the Christmas of dreams. We arrived weary. We depart aglow, immune to the honking taxis and rush of the ticking clock.
See more photos of Boston at Christmas at newengland.com/boston-christmas