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!”
Our little toy-store pilgrimage finally brought us to G.Willikers!, a Market Street institution that first opened its doors in 1978. Still family-owned–chances are Jill Breneman or one of her two grown children, Bob and Jody Breneman, will ring you up–the shop is now a destination for parents whose own moms and dads used to bring them here.
On it went like this for two straight days. We’d walk, then stop. We’d shop a little, then a eat a little. We set our own pace, and reveled in the different faces of the city we discovered. We visited Portsmouth Fabric Company on Penhallow Street, a needle-arts mecca awash in racks of fabrics from all parts of the world. On the other side of downtown (and at the opposite end of the pendulum) we poked inside the The Manporium, with its amusing inventory of “Boyfriend Training” flashcards and bathroom putting greens.
In Sheafe Street Books we happened across a small storefront with the atmosphere of a cozy house. That’s because it really is a house: The store is the brainchild of Ken Kozick, a longtime collector and book-business executive, who, when he lost his job with a big publisher a few years back, converted his home’s first floor in downtown Portsmouth into a used bookshop. His living room became the checkout area, the dining room a browsing area with shelves stuffed with rare titles, paperbacks, a scattering of new editions, and collections with labels like “Ye Old New England Stuff.”
“The book business is a bit like subsistence farming,” Kozick joked, looking around his shop with pride.
But what about that old-time holiday spirit? Where was that going to come from? We found it as night descended and the city’s center radiated like a Christmas tree. The old brick buildings blinked with window lights, wreaths hung from the streetlamps, and the buzz of a downtown that’s actually a destination after 5:00 p.m. filled the air.
A different kind of rush awaited us at Strawbery Banke Museum. While the “Vintage Christmas” theme was threaded throughout Portsmouth, it was there, at that rescued and rebuilt neighborhood on the city’s original waterfront, that the whole thing lived and breathed. For three weekends each December (Dec. 1-2, 8-9, and 15-16 this year), this museum of early New England homes opens its doors to evening visitors for “Candlelight Stroll,” a journey through America’s holiday history, from the late 1600s through the 1950s.
So stroll we did, down dirt paths, past caroling groups, past a horse-drawn wagon pulling teams of excited kids and bundled-up parents, past a bonfire warming a small crowd of fellow time-travelers. The magnificent Goodwin Mansion, decked in lavish Victorian holiday decorations, drew us deeper into the spirit of the season. We ducked into the Georgian luxury of the elegant circa-1762 Chase House, where a period interpreter was rolling through Christmas tunes on a harpsichord. We split time at the Shapley-Drisco House, where on one side we visited a young girl from the 1790s, while on the other, a pair of 1950s daughters were doing their hair in front of a tree and a small black-and-white television set.
It was an exhausting business, jumping from century to century, and we tucked Calvin into bed early. But we were up early the next morning, on foot and meandering through Portsmouth again, out to the waterfront, through Prescott Park, and down narrow streets crowded with restored 17th-, 18th-, and 19th-century homes. In many other cities you’d pay to see this stuff; in Portsmouth this kind of history is just part of a morning walk.
We filled our day by nipping into more shops and then feasting on haddock piccata, cod with salsa sauce, and lobster spring rolls at Jumpin’ Jay’s Fish Café, a downtown restaurant featuring seafood bought daily from local fishermen. Grace talked for days about its freshness.
But I must confess we didn’t entirely avoid our car. Wanting just a little more of that salt air, one afternoon we headed south a bit, rolling through the coastal towns of New Castle and Rye, before landing in Hampton. In winter there’s a desolate beauty to a summer resort, so accustomed to its crowds and July flair. We hit the beach for a short walk, then hunkered down at Ashworth by the Sea for a simple lunch of grilled cheese and fries. It seemed an unlikely place to clinch the Christmas spirit for us, but there we were: just us and a few locals, with a collection of soft holiday music playing in the background. We lingered at the restaurant, taking the opportunity to be together without the worry of agendas or pressing e-mails to address. “There’s some relief on a day like today,” noted our waitress, Sandy. “It’s slow …” She drew out that last word, letting it work itself out of her mouth with a contagious smile.
For a small family in need of a little Christmas boost, that was a gift we could appreciate.
For more on Portsmouth’s holiday festivities, including concerts, shopping, house tours, and the Strawbery Banke Candlelight Stroll, visit: vintagechristmasnh.org