Many communities put on a show for the holidays, but Christmas celebrations in Manchester and Woodstock, Vermont, are especially festive.
By Bill Scheller
Nov 12 2015
The Woodstock InnPhoto Credit : Joel Laino
The table was splendidly set for Christmas Eve dinner. Red candles flanked a centerpiece of evergreens and flowers; napkins were tied with ribbons and holly. A cheery fire blazed on the hearth.
But no dinner would be served, since this was Christmas 1912, preserved as if in amber. I was at Hildene, home of presidential son Robert Todd Lincoln and his family, tucked between the Green and Taconic mountains outside Manchester, Vermont. Although Hildene was the Lincolns’ summer retreat, they spent at least three Christmases here, and each December, Hildene’s curators deck the house in the style of a century ago. “We learn more every year about how people like the Lincolns decorated,” docent Melissa Smith told me. “We’re always striving for accuracy in portraying Hildene as it was at Christmas in their day.”
That portrayal even extends to the tree, a Vermont white spruce like the one that the Lincolns would have had cut. “In those days they preferred trees with big, open branches,” Smith explained, “so that they could hang ornaments within the tree instead of just on the outside.” Many of Hildene’s ornaments are period antiques; others, including strings of popcorn and cranberries, are old-time homemade baubles.
It was Christmas Eve throughout the house, where it seemed as though the family had just gone out. Cards lined a bookshelf; red velvet stockings hung over the parlor hearth. I ducked into a servant’s room and saw a tabletop tree. The butler had been wrapping presents in his bedroom. But Mrs. Lincoln must have been at home; carols, and a Bach toccata, floated from the thousand pipes of her Aeolian organ.
I was wishing that I could stay for dinner. In 1912.
Many Vermont communities put on a show for the holidays, but I’ve discovered two—Manchester and Woodstock—that make an especially festive effort. Turning back the Christmas clock at Hildene is only one part of a celebration that ranges over several weeks throughout the twin villages of Manchester and Manchester Center. Woodstock’s festivities culminate in a mid-December weekend of music, firelight, and a horse-drawn parade.
Central to Manchester Merriment and the area’s Christmas hospitality are the places where hospitality is the stock in trade. Fifteen area hostelries participate in two weekends of inn tours, each out to top the other in cookies and evergreens, cocoa and holly. My own base was the Inn at Manchester, where, as I sat in the charmingly decorated parlor, I learned just how popular Manchester has become in the weeks before Christmas. “We’re here for the second time,” said one guest to another in a decidedly Appalachian accent as the two sat by the fire, “but it seems that everyone we meet here is on their 12th or 13th visit.”
The man was from Kentucky, and his observation was seconded by innkeeper Frank Hanes. “People book way in advance,” he said, “and come here every year at this time.” No one at the inn was a skier, so the draw must be Manchester’s Christmas cheer.
I inn-toured my way between Manchester Center and Manchester, with a notable stop at the sprawling and spacious Inn at Ormsby Hill (best snacks, with smoked salmon breaking in on the endless march of cookies), and finally found my way to the hilltop Wilburton Inn. Here I discovered a Christmas tradition that started as something entirely spontaneous—something so gloriously loony that it never could have been planned or put on a program.
Because nobody could have come up with the Twinkle Girls.
I was standing in the Wilburton’s great baronial salon, toasting myself by the fire (and, yes, munching cookies) and admiring a Christmas tree that looked as though a cadre of stylists had descended on the inn after finishing with the White House. The truth, I soon learned, was even more remarkable.
“Do you like our tree? I’ll tell you how it gets decorated every year.” Melissa Levis, who, with her father and brother, Albert and Max Levis, runs the Wilburton, was standing with me alongside the cookie table, keeping an eye on her Cavalier King Charles spaniel (who, in turn, had his eye on the cookies). “Three women from New York State stay with us on ‘girls’ weekend’ trips a couple of times a year. Back in 2005, a few weeks before Christmas, they were sitting by the fire after a cocktail or two. The power was out, the tree was up, and the ornaments were still in boxes. One of them said, ‘Let’s decorate the tree.’ They did—and they’ve done it ever since.”
The “Twinkle Girls” got their name, though, by decorating themselves. I got to see the finished product: three plush reindeer, bedecked with big red bows, lolli-pops and candy canes, and tall furry hats on which gingerbread men defied gravity. Each outfit was festooned with flashing colored lights. You might say they … twinkled.
“The outfits started as gifts we gave each other,” said Pam Ogden, who with friends Julia Scarincio and Janice Blair were the humans beneath the reindeer. “We’ve been elves, giraffes—we even wear the costumes when we go to restaurants here. We have no problem being the center of attention.” And in 2014, Manchester made them just that: the lead float in the Lighted Tractor Parade, an annual tradition.
If a two-legged reindeer can carry a string of lights, so can a John Deere—or anything else with wheels. Tractors are just part of the rolling illumination on Manchester Center’s Main Street and its roundabouts, on a Saturday evening when everything from riding mowers to pickups, some towing elaborate floats, makes a stately, sparkling procession. And the twinkliest, most over-the-top display wins $500.
Two weeks later, on the weekend just before Christmas, I was back in town to ride the Manchester Lions Club’s Elf Express. There hasn’t been passenger rail service here for years—but elves, like their famous employer, exist outside of time. Aboard vintage Vermont Railway cars, the Elf Express carries children, their adults, and a spirited troupe of elves on hour-long excursions enlivened by an original elf performance. As I waited to board the day’s first express, coach Jim Raposa—director of drama at local Burr and Burton Academy—explained that the elves are all BBA students, who each dedicate more than 50 hours perfecting their 15-minute show.
“We have a cast of 20,” Jim told me. “They put on the same show in each of the four cars; it’s all coordinated to recorded music piped from the central car.” Sure enough, as I sipped hot chocolate near the rear door of my car, I could watch our elves and the elves in the following car synchronize perfectly to the music, all at the same point in their story about looking for the popular children’s book character Christopher Pop-In-Kins.
There’s a fifth car, up front behind the locomotive, with no elves or riders onboard. But toward the end of the trip, its single passenger emerges. It’s Santa himself—and, back at the station in Manchester Depot, he’s joined by none other than the elusive Christopher Pop-In-Kins.
Sixty miles to the northeast, Woodstock’s mid-December Winter Wassail Weekend was in full swing as I arrived at Billings Farm’s capacious barn at the same time as Tom and Jerry. They’re a handsome pair of Belgian draft horses, chestnut in color, and they were just returning with a bundled-up sleighload of visitors to this premier model farm.
As I had in Manchester, I began my Christmastime stay in Woodstock with a home visit—this time to 1890 instead of 1912, and to a home far more modest than the Lincolns’ Hildene. The farm manager’s house at Billings Farm was nonetheless festively done up, its parlor tree decked out in handmade ornaments—“the kind the family might have seen in magazines,” I learned from docent Patty Arnison. “Just like now, magazines then were full of articles on how to decorate for Christmas.”
And although today’s farm manager doesn’t live in this period-preserved dwelling, he and his entire staff might easily have come by and tucked into a feast of pies and plum pudding—all the products of the great wood-fired kitchen range, and all arrayed on the dining-room table. There was even what Patty called a “Jack Horner pie”: two crusts, with prizes tucked between. “You pulled one of the ribbons in the top crust,” she explained, “and out popped a prize.”
Down in a basement room, visitors were crafting pomanders, those fragrant traditional ornaments made by studding an orange with cloves. I hadn’t made holiday decorations since Cub Scout days, but I think I did a creditable job and hope that my pomander found a place on the tree upstairs, just as in an 1890s magazine.
Leaving pomander-making to a bevy of newly arrived visitors, I headed into town, where my wife, Kay, and I had checked into the Woodstock Inn. Split logs no less than four feet long flamed up briskly in a hearth that toasted loungers in the big lobby, where kids scampered in and out of a “gingerbread” house the size of a garden shed. Upstairs, our own room’s wood fire was ready to light, but outdoors it was Woodstock itself that was alight with warmth and cheer. As we crossed the Green, heading for the first of several homes on the weekend house tour, we watched Wassail workers stacking logs into a tall hexagonal pyre, stuffed with tinder, that they would ignite at dusk.
Around the periphery, others were placing luminaries—candles set into translucent paper bags. There were, I’d heard, exactly 400 of them. I figured there was some significance to that number. “Why 400?” I asked one of the luminary men (who might, for all I knew, have been a local luminary). “Because,” he replied, “that’s how many it takes to go around the Green, seven feet apart.” I should have known. Vermonters are nothing if not practical and prosaic.
The houses on the tour, most of them facing the Green and backing onto the snowy banks of the Ottauquechee River, were hardly prosaic in the sumptuousness of their holiday decorations. New England–austere on the outside, they’d been remodeled inside to levels of luxury that would have scandalized their colonial builders. As I heard one volunteer say as I slipped on my mandatory carpet-protecting booties, “If I were as old as this house, I wouldn’t look half as good.”
Woodstock’s village center, as old as those houses and looking just as good, was cinematically Christmasy. A high-school brass band played carols on the traffic island at the main intersection. A children’s choir sang at the triple-arched entrance to the Romanesque Norman Williams Public Library. Swags of greenery framed the windows of cafés, where patrons warmed themselves over hot chocolate. Walking along Elm Street, I passed a man wearing a topper, and he seemed not at all out of place. Tipping my Borsalino, I said to him, “And I thought fedoras were old hat!”
Later that afternoon we secured the last spots aboard the Woodstock Inn’s horse-drawn wagon in Saturday’s key event, the Wassail Parade. Every vehicle in the parade was horse-drawn—and as the wagons lined up on the outskirts, I saw Tom and Jerry, from Billings Farm, impatiently tapping their hooves. Our horses were Duke and Dan, another pair of Belgians, each nearly a ton of muscle and resplendent in tack of gleaming silver and black leather. They were workhorses on a weekend lark. “I harvested 1,800 bales of hay with them last summer,” said their owner, Phil Warren, who had brought them over from New Hampshire for the event.
Alongside the wagons, the Belgians’ smaller kin carried riders dressed as Santa, elves, and characters from Lord of the Rings and Frozen. Like a procession headed for some medieval Yuletide fair, we clopped and lumbered into the center of town and back to the outskirts. “Wave to the crowds slowly,” Phil advised, “like the Queen of England.” Best of all, Phil asked Kay and me whether we’d like to take the driver’s seat with him as he made his way back through town toward Billings Farm. It was our own parade, though this time we held off on the royal wave.
Live performances are mainstays of Wassail Weekend. Among offerings of jazz, high-school theatre, and readings of Dylan Thomas’s “A Child’s Christmas in Wales,” our favorite was a set of a capella numbers sung by a Boston-area group called “The Sly Voxes,” on the mezzanine of Williams Library.
When it was over, we walked out to see that dusk had turned to dark. The luminaries were all lit and flickering against the snow around the Green and, perhaps because a few of the 400 had been left over, right up the library steps. On the Green, the Yule fire was collapsing into embers.
Learn more about this year’s schedule for Manchester Merriment and Winter Wassail Weekend.
SEE MORE:Christmas in Manchester & Woodstock, Vermont | Photographs
Inn at Manchester
Inn at Ormsby Hill
Winter Wassail Weekend
Billings Farm & museum
Norman Williams Public Library