The Old Neighborhood

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The days leading up to Christmas in the old New Hampshire coastal town of Portsmouth have a refreshing quality, even an astringent one at times. And on a weekend’s visit you won’t be forced back into a specific—and sentimentalized—era. At the annual Candlelight Stroll hosted by Strawbery Banke, Portsmouth’s thriving restoration, three hundred years tend to bump up against one another. This is by design, as the curators work to demonstrate the varying ways in which New Englanders of many centuries experienced Christmas.

 

The holiday we now tend to envelop in song and glitter and an abundance of gifts dates back no farther than the mid-nineteenth century. The Puritans (later called Congregationalists) actively disapproved of Christmas, or at best ignored it. Several of the earliest houses at Strawbery Banke show that their inhabitants saw December 25 as simply a day for business as usual, as a gathering of quotations found at the 1780s Wheelwright House makes clear. “Happened to think that this day is Christmas,” a teacher wrote in his diary in 1828, “but seeing none of my scholars take note of it, I thought if I did, I should appear rather odd, & so I let it pass.”

Strawbery Banke is the name the first English settlers gave this place in 1630, honoring its lush and fruitful setting along the Piscataqua River (the town took its present name in 1653). The restoration’s ten acres overlooking the waterfront occupy this oldest section, with forty-two buildings (most built between 1695 to 1810) clustered around Puddle Dock, now a central green but until well into this century an inlet of the river that bristled with wharves and storehouses. About a dozen houses remain open for special winter events; some contain period furnishings, while others function as galleries and crafts shops.

The events, held two weekends in December, begin on Friday afternoons and end each evening at nine. As night falls, the grounds are lit by flickering candles encased in eleven hundred glass lanterns set along dirt paths. Bonfires flare on Puddle Dock common, and visitors tour the grounds in horse-drawn carriages or scurry from the cold night air into the welcome of ancient houses still warm with the lives of their first owners. Some of these early inhabitants were extremely rich merchants and lawyers; others were artisans and laborers. All lived in egalitarian proximity. Now, a century or two later, the gentle notes of a dulcimer drift from the window of the pre-Revolutionary Pitt Tavern and then are momentarily lost when a helmeted air-raid warden shouts, “Lights out! Don’t you people know there’s a blackout?” At that moment, over the rooftops of Strawbery Banke, 1800 and 1942 meet.

Today’s meticulous restoration was a long time building. It is celebrated now as a triumph of the nascent preservation movement of the 1950s, but at first it had to endure all the perils and near disasters of any pioneer effort. The city that had grown around Strawbery Banke had risen and fallen on the business of shipbuilding. Before the Revolution more ships of the Continental navy came from here than from any other seaport. John Paul Jones’s Ranger sailed from Portsmouth Harbor in 1777 bearing the first American flag flown at sea. The town’s prosperity was accompanied by all the accouterments of wealth: fine houses, an influx of produce and riches from every part of the world, and an amazing array of cultural advantages—theater, opera, and singing and dancing lessons. Winter, especially, was Portsmouth’s high season.

When the day of the clipper ship ended and the railroad took hold, Portsmouth looked at hard times. In 1869 the town’s best-known native author, Thomas Bailey Aldrich, wrote of the derelict waterfront: “The phantom fleet sailed off one day, and never came back again. The crazy old warehouses are empty; and barnacles and eel-grass cling to the piles of the crumbling wharves, where the sunshine lies lovingly, bringing out the faint spicy odor that haunts the place—the ghost of the old dead West India trade.”

 

Here, as elsewhere, the first stirrings of the late nineteenth century’s colonial-revival movement owed much to the established population’s fear of an influx of foreigners. The houses and implements of the first settlers, the reasoning went, could be used as a moral lesson for the newest ones. In 1940 the New Hampshire WPA Guide worried about formerly great houses “in the impoverished section of the city, occupied by the immigrant groups, unaware, of course, that their dilapidated quarters are prized by antiquarians.”

Photos from the 1950s show much of the Puddle Dock area in a state of extreme disrepair, although a sturdy working-class population still had roots there and jobs too, provided by the two-hundred-year-old Portsmouth Navy Yard just down the street. Urban renewal’s deep thinkers proposed tearing down the whole neighborhood and re-creating what had once been, since laws at the time peculiarly required that all buildings in a renewal area be razed. More sensible heads prevailed, as they were beginning to elsewhere in the country, and finally, in 1958, after remaining residents had been relocated and some anomalistic houses removed or destroyed, Strawbery Banke came into being as an outdoor museum, opening for business in 1965.

Two years ago Strawbery Banke’s education department gave a student intern the job of sifting through local newspapers for accounts of winter social life in the town from 1769 to 1825. Her report makes lively reading. Shopkeepers advertise “NewEngland Rum of the best quality” (1784), “A few Chests of Excellent Bohea and Souchong Teas” (1789), “ GRAPES by the Jar, or single Pound—Figs—Raisins—Currants—Almonds” (1799). Winter diversions include a production of Goldsmith’s She Stoops to Conquer (1788), lessons at John Reed’s Singing School (1792), and Mr. Neal’s instructions in “the polite accomplishment of dancing” (1825). Traffic moved briskly. On the opening night of the comedy The West Indian (1791), theatergoers were warned “that all carriages ... be ordered to proceed by the way of Market Street, and return by the way of Chapel Street in order to prevent difficulties which may arise from their meeting in the night.” It’s exhausting. No wonder John Adams, the serious Quincy man, looked to his neighbors to the north and recoiled from “the pomps and vanities and ceremonies of that little world, Portsmouth.”

A night on the town in the old Portsmouth that is now Strawbery Banke provides a sense of place that comes straight off the pages of those ancient newspapers and then jumps the years nearly to now. For instance, the first stop on a self-guided walking tour, the Drisco House, is split into two time zones. On the right side we see the simple 1790s house occupied by the sea captain and merchant James Drisco and his family. For them Christmas was simply a day like any other. Around 1900 the house became a two-family dwelling, and the left side is much as it was when the last inhabitants departed in the 1950s. Its gaudy, scuffed linoleum and kitchen wall-paper, cabinet-style GE television set, agreeably tacky Christmas decorations, and radio blaring—what else?—“Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer” complete the time warp.

Other houses contain more traditional holiday treatments. The Chase House, an elegant Georgian structure, is furnished to portray a winter’s ball of 1815, and the Rider-Wood House is the setting for a carefully researched holiday wedding of the 1830s. Finally, at the hybrid Greek Revival/Federal Goodwin Mansion (once owned by a New Hampshire governor and one of the few buildings moved to the site), we find the sumptuous Victorian Christmas, complete with the decorated tree and toys of the period, including an elaborate dollhouse. In the kitchen one of several teenagers working as costumed guides looked up from a chopping board to explain that she was portraying an Irish servant who was allowed to move about the house only from a special back stairway. “She’s an excellent student,” said the man next to me, her teacher, as we filed through.

 

Indeed, all the costumed inhabitants of Strawbery Banke are wonderful students—and teachers—in large part because the people who run the place take real care to represent Christmas (and, in the near future, Hanukkah) with clear eyes and voices free of cant. Much digging has gone into creating this lively place. If along the way you discover that many early settlers held a sour view of Christmas, or you learn, against all ingrained belief, that Christmas carols were nearly unknown in America and Britain until after 1910, when musicologists began to take an interest in them, then you’ll have brought away something unexpected and pleasingly unadorned from a holiday weekend. There’s a good little manual given out to the staff at Strawbery Banke. “Do not be afraid to interpret the history of Christmas observance,” it concludes. “Be bold, honest, accurate and neutral, and your visitors will be grateful.”

—Carla Davidson TO PLAN A TRIP