A Berkshire Christmas

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This year Hancock’s 25 “gift drawings” will be displayed together for the last time. These delicately colored works were produced in the 184Os and 185Os by various Shaker artists to record visions or messages they believed had been sent by the spirit world. (After this show ends on April 2, 2001, the fragile drawings will be exhibited only in small groups.) In the Shaker spirit of caring for the less fortunate, admission to “Community Christmas” is free to those who donate nonperishable food to the Salvation Army. Don’t be lulled into leaving your wallet at home, though; Hancock has a firstrate museum shop.

A few miles east of Hancock Shaker Village, Herman Melville’s house, Arrowhead, is open by candlelight from November 27 to December 1 and can be visited on other days if you make an appointment in advance. Ned Alien, the curator, told our group that Melville paid $6,500 for the house, “about twice what it was worth.” Much of what is known about how the interior looked when the author lived in it comes from his story “I and My Chimney,” published in Putnam’s Magazine in 1856. I found the text on the Internet, courtesy of the University of Virginia Library, in Charlottes ville. “I and my chimney, two grey-headed old smokers, reside in the country,” it begins. “We are, I may say, old settlers here; particularly my old chimney, which settles more and more every day.” And then it keeps going for 17 pages—single-spaced. Melville bought paper by the wagonload from local mills, Alien told us, and had his sisters do the work of copying over his rough drafts.

If historic houses are not always open in December, the Berkshire hills at least are accessible. Travelers can climb Monument Mountain, where Nathaniel Hawthorne and Herman Melville met on a picnic in 1850, a meeting that apparently influenced Melville’s writing, steering him away from travelogue into deeper, morally turbulent waters. (Unfortunately, Alien told us, “the new approach was not a financially rewarding one.") Or you can take in the view at ski areas like Brodie and Butternut Basin. The ski clothes in electric pinks, blues, and yellows that look so vainglorious in mail-order catalogues seem merely practical on snowy slopes, a way to distinguish your DNA at 100 yards. In late December, candycolored boys and girls shout their coordinates into Christmas walkie-talkies, a scene that in the right hands might have made a January cover for The Saturday Evening Post.

—Jane Colihan TO PLAN A TRIP