Christmas At The Palace

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Under a dome of stars emerging from the darkening twilight, the air has a Christmasy nip to it and carries the scent of fires in nearby fireplaces, but the breeze is a mild Southern one. Candles, hundreds of them, are set about along the grand allée and around the circular drive in front of the Georgian brick governor’s palace. To one side carolers in capes and tricorns sing; their music wafts through the talk from the line of visitors waiting to enter the mansion. Garlands of boxwood and crab apple and tallow decorate the house’s portico, and candles light every window. I am at Tryon Palace in New Bern, North Carolina, home of the governor of the colony and later the first capitol of the state in the Revolutionary period, and we’re waiting to step inside to see just how it might have been in Christmas 1770. But Tryon Palace is only thirty-eight years old.

It dates from 1958, but it had been built before, in 1770, and built to last; Gov. William Tryon spent fifteen thousand pounds to have it designed by the English architect John Hawks and erected by fine artisans from as far off as Philadelphia. In 1798, after the state capital had already moved west to Raleigh, Tryon Palace burned to the ground. It ceased to exist for a century and a half.

In 1941 Mrs. James Latham, a New Bern native married to a very successful cotton factor, proposed to fund the reconstruction and furnishing of the long-lost palace if the state of North Carolina would buy the land and maintain the place after it was complete. Her offer was accepted. Plans for the original building were tracked down, and researchers discovered inventories that imparted extensive knowledge of what the house had contained. In 1959 the brand-new duplication of the long-gone historic building opened to the public.

The tour starts in the marble entrance hall, where I and a dozen other visitors are told that we are attending a ball celebrating the birthday of George III and that in his lifetime Christmas was marked by churchgoing and socializing but not gift giving, “except,” the decent says, “perhaps a gift of a catechism to a child.” In the salmon-colored, candlelit governor’s library just off the entrance hall we learn that the recreation of the house has been so thorough that the four hundred volumes visible are all titles that Tryon owned—and even in the same editions.

Moving into the palace ballroom, we watch two pairs of bewigged men and long-gowned women step to the music of Henry Purcell played on a harpsichord. Above them, beyond festive arrangements of pomegranates and statice, full-length portraits of King George and Queen Charlotte glare out from either side of the grand fireplace.

In the dining room the table is laden with eighteenth-century Christmas desserts: cream-puff pastry swans, jumbles, candied fruits, rose water cakes, marzipan, dried ginger, a molded blancmange, sugared apricots, and a plate of what today are called cannolis. In the parlor beyond the dining room, the highlight is a Twelfth Night cake, a white pastry hatbox draped in chains of gold beads and with silver leaves tossed on top.

The high point of this Christmas tour is the palace’s kitchen, in an adjoining building, where a ham roasts on a rope-turned spit on the open hearth, filling the room with its rich smell. Venison stews are preparing, giant copper kettles line one wall, and a worktable bears all the dishes just cooked and ready to be taken over to the big house.

The Tryon Palace enterprise has grown since the 1950s to include much more than the one mansion. In addition to the two large brick outbuildings that flank the palace—the stable and the kitchen/office—and its acre of eighteenth-century gardens, the restoration now includes neighboring houses from 1783, 1828, and the 1880s, and at this season each is appointed to represent Christmas in a particular era. Leaving Tryon Palace on this evening of candlelight tours, I didn’t head to any of those houses right away though; stepping into the darkness, I was drawn by the light of a campfire burning beside two canvas tents under the tall pines of the palace grounds, a re-creation of a Civil War encampment.

By the mid-nineteenth century New Bern was both a busy port where two navigable rivers met and a major rail junction. Because of that, it drew the attention of Union troops, who captured it in 1862 and never gave it up. For the remainder of the war it served as both a hospital center—most of its churches and schools sheltered the wounded—and a magnet for freed slaves. That night in the encampment’s small clearing, its two tepee-like Sibley tents looked as if there could be a thousand more behind; all those candles in front of Tryon Palace might have been soldiers’ lantern lights. A man in a Civil War uniform was cooking at the fire, his mess gear spread out on a wooden bench; in one of the tents a fellow soldier explained how the pole doubled as a chimney for a small iron stove; he showed the straw bedding soldiers slept on and described how easy it was to raise and strike the tent. In that small, tranquil, night-clad scene I felt closer to glimpsing actual Civil War life than I ever have on a battlefield by day.