Newport In Winter

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Trinity Church, a few blocks from the synagogue, is another of Newport’s great religious houses. Built in 1726 and recently restored at a cost of two and a half million dollars, the graceful frame structure with a soaring steeple looks like every shining church on a Christmas card. A favorite event here is the annual stirring of the plum pudding, which takes place at the church’s elegant chapter house following morning services on the Sunday before Advent. Tradition has it that the ceremony was inspired in England by a prayer that reads, “Stir up, we beseech thee, O Lord, the hearts of thy faithful people; that they, plenteously bringing forth the fruit of good works, may by thee be plenteously rewarded. …” Worshipers would then gather in the parish house to take turns stirring up a large vat of pudding batter. Today the custom is faithfully continued in Newport. Congregants come by to give a symbolic stir to thick batter that stands in a large silver bowl on a table in the chapter house. They can buy containers of the batter (which comes with instructions for its preparation), with proceeds marked for charity.

During the time I spent in Newport, there were craft shows, concerts, art exhibits, and an affectionate performance of Clement C. Moore’s “’Twas the Night before Christmas.” The reader was eighty-six-year-old James H. Van Alen, whose forebears were at the social center of turn-of-the-century Newport. Mr. Van Alen has been reciting the poem (and adding verses to it) for more than twenty-five years. Months ahead of time he is said to phone in from anywhere in the world he might be with suggestions and amendments.

Take time from the festivities to stroll Newport’s narrow streets and to visit the shops and restaurants along the wharves where, after dark, lights dress the rigging of pleasure craft. Don’t miss the Point, on the north side of town, which was home to the first settlers. This area is thick with colonial houses, some grand, some appealingly modest. They stretch for half a mile along a spit of land, giving the homes on the west side of Washington Street the lapping bay as a back yard. There are few shops here, but there is a nice old tavern, the Rhumb Line, that’s perfect for a warming drink on a winter’s afternoon.

Beneath the fabled Babylon of marble and gilt, Newporters hope you’ll find the working colonial and Victorian city.

It wouldn’t be Newport without a tour of some of the houses built after the Civil War by those who made fortunes in railroads and coal, as well as in paper clips and margarine. The men paid the bills, but it was usually their ladies who took command, marking out their territory and staking their reputations on ever more elaborate furnishings, parties, and social rites. Thanks to the heroic efforts of the Preservation Society of Newport County, a number of these mansions have been saved from demolition and are open to the public. Several are gorgeously decked out for Christmas, and it’s an impressive sight, even though, as one is reminded over and over by tour guides, these were summer “cottages,” in use for just a few months a year.

I was standing in the doorway of the oval ballroom at The Elms, temporarily alone. The crowds had moved ahead and the next group hadn’t come by yet. In the dimly lit room the silver-ornamented Christmas tree glowed. The piano in the corner was gilded. In truth, Newport’s elite of the 1890s would have spent Christmas at home in New York, Chicago, or Pittsburgh. But when the piano player started on a wistful Christmas song, the room was briefly populated with imaginary waltzers, fluid ghosts in Victorian silks.

—Carla Davidson TO PLAN A TRIP