A Berkshire Christmas

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On the first Sunday in December, the village of Stockbridge in western Massachusetts decks itself out in Christmas lights and does its best to look the way it did in 1967. 1967? Why not 1773, when the Red Lion Inn began serving food and drink to travelers on the road from Boston to Albany? Or 1866, when the town cheered native son Cyrus Field’s successful laying of the transatlantic cable? Stockbridge celebrates 1967 because that’s the year Norman Rockwell painted Stockbridge Main Street at Christmas for McCall’s .

Fortunately, not much has changed in Rockwell’s adopted hometown since then, or indeed in half a century. (Born in New York, he lived in New Rochelle, New York, and Arlington, Vermont, before settling in Stockbridge in 1953.) If you stand on the north side of Main, across from the Dutch-looking brick edifice that began life as the town offices (it now houses the Yankee Candle Company), you can see at the far left the Old Corner House, built in the early 180Os and the first home of the Norman Rockwell Museum. Near the center of the block a Christmas tree fills the oversized window of Rockwell’s second-floor studio. (“I became poverty proud,” Rockwell wrote in My Adventures as an Illustrator . When another artist would boast about an expensive new studio, Rockwell would mention his own, “over the local meat market.") To your right is the rambling Red Lion Inn, which was closed for the winter when Rockwell painted it but now receives guests year-round. It’s especially welcoming in December, when warm fires battle drafts in the lobby.

In Rockwell’s painting, 10year-old Buicks and Chevrolets are parked diagonally in front of the shops. So as part of its annual celebration, the Chamber of Commerce closes Main Street to traffic and brings in vintage cars.

You don’t have to love Norman Rockwell’s work to respond to Stockbridge. You only need enjoy small-town pleasures like diagonal parking and an inn within walking distance of the bakery, the library, and the general store. Early December visitors will find Williams & Son (in business since 1795) a fine place to buy stocking presents: penny candy, miniature tins of cocoa, cookie cutters, and the like. Just down the block, in the basement of the library, you’ll find the Stockbridge History Room, where a large wasp’s nest sits beside a model of the first wood-pulp machine in America. Near a pair of bird’s wings, thought to be the ones the sculptor Daniel Chester French studied when he was making angels in his studio down the road, rests a pint-sized safe salvaged from the now-defunct Housatonic National Bank. In the guest book beside the door a visitor had scrawled, “Tempus fugit,” but it flies a little more slowly when a town takes the trouble to save stuff like this, even though it might not make the cut at the Smithsonian.

By 1993 the lines at the Old Corner House were so long that the museum moved to new quarters on the outskirts of town. Photographs on view in the galleries there give a sense of how hard Rockwell worked arranging his backgrounds and posing his models, whom he then painstakingly drew from life. As his son Tom describes the process in a movie about his father, Rockwell would coax and cajole his subjects, demonstrating the expression he wanted, and then tell them, “Raise your eyebrows. Farther. Farther .”

“I like to tell stories,” Rockwell himself explains in the film. “I know that isn’t the highest form of art. Nobody knows that better than I do. But it’s what I like to do.” Still, he seems to have agonized at devoting his superior gifts to his relentlessly homespun subject matter. “I must have an overdose of mediocrity in me to be able to keep repeating the same old things—kids—year after year for forty-eight years,” he wrote in 1959. He suffered from depression serious enough that when he consulted the psychoanalyst Erik Erikson at a nearby clinic, Erikson had him hand over his .22 pistol for safekeeping. He was plagued by insecurity, yet he drew 322 covers for The Saturday Evening Post over his 60 year career; when one appeared, circulation sometimes jumped by 250,000.

His last studio, now moved to the grounds of the Norman Rockwell Museum, is closed during the winter, as are the nearby house and workshop of Daniel Chester French. Hancock Shaker Village, in nearby Pittsfield, stays open year-round. A working farm with 20 original buildings, it preserves the glorious architecture and artifacts of the celibate communal society that lived there between 1790 and 1960.

On the same weekend as Stockbridge’s “Main Street at Christmas,” Hancock presents its “Community Christmas,” with crafts and activities for children and adults. You can take a ride on a sleigh pulled by horses or oxen, or a wagon ride if there is no snow, and visit animals in the celebrated Round Stone Barn, designed to promote efficiency in milking, feeding, and cleaning. “It gets pretty cold in the barn,” admits Sally Morse Majewski, who works at Hancock, but visitors can warm up inside the five-story Brick Dwelling, built in 1830. Here, Brothers and Sisters entered separate doors and climbed separate stairways to dormitories whose beautifully crafted cupboards and other furnishings would now fetch staggering sums at auction.

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