In Newport, Rhode Island, a month-long tradition of giving and goodwill makes a memorable holiday getaway.
By Annie Graves
Oct 08 2009
Island Moving Company, Newport’s resident ballet troupe, performs The Nutcracker each year at the elegant Rosecliff mansion.Photo Credit : Bidwell, Julie
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.
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.”
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.
Today, 1,500 volunteers help this nonprofit organization raise thousands of dollars for a variety of charities. And although the event has far outstripped its humble origins, its essential guidelines remain profoundly simple: Calendar events must be traditional, noncommercial, and oriented around the holiday. Programs are free of charge or benefit a nonprofit or charity. And Newport’s merchants and homeowners still uphold the tradition of decorating with simple white lights.
For seasonal events, check the Christmas in Newport calendar: 401-849-6454; christmasinnewport.org
More about Newport: Touro Synagogue
Newport is famous for its hospitality. Join Yankee as we take in the sights and tour this charming waterfront city, where Colonial history meets Gilded Age elegance. Here are a few of our favorite stops along the way. For more information on lodging, dining, shopping, and area activities, contact the Newport County Convention and Visitors’ Bureau: 800-976-5122; gonewport.com