December 1989 | Volume 40, Issue 8
It is a December evening in Newport, Rhode Island, a town better known for its summer charms. On Pelham Street the gas lamps have just lit up, their stanchions twined with holly and red ribbons. White lights stand in the windows of square, solemn houses of pre-Revolutionary merchants, and front doors are bright with fruit-bearing wreaths. In this violet-hued, crystal-cold dusk the only footsteps you hear will be your own. Very likely no car will pass.
Christmas in Newport is a month-long celebration thought up by townspeople in 1971 and run by them on a volunteer basis. Their stated goal is to recapture the true meaning of Christmas, but if they also manage to lure tourists during the quiet winter season, so much the better. “I loved it in June,” said one woman who was checking into my hotel, “so I came back in December.” On the weekend I was there, thirty tour buses carried visitors to each of the several mansions that were open, and some smaller numbers of travelers showed up for a variety of Christmas events. All of these newcomers would find—along with eggnog, cider, and cookies—a friendly, low-key greeting, the kind one long-time neighbor might offer another. This is just what the Newporters intend. Beneath the fabled Babylon of marble and gilt, they hope you will discover the working city, with its array of colonial houses and Victorian storefronts, its busy wharves and docks.
Newport was founded in 1639 when a few families from Massachusetts were drawn to Rhode Island by the promise of religious freedom offered by the colony’s founder, Roger Williams. Many of these first settlers had Quaker sympathies—not a safe belief to hold at that time. Indeed, Mary Dyer, a refugee along with her husband from the Massachusetts Bay Colony, was eventually hanged in Boston for continuing to return there to proselytize against all warnings. Most of the new inhabitants took root and flourished, and by 1712 the town had grown to the point that a map had to be drawn to help visitors make their way around. Not long after the map was issued, the first wave of summer residents appeared. They were Southerners, fleeing the malaria season. Along with a bracing climate they found a landscape of uncommon beauty, the town strung along a neck of land between the Atlantic Ocean and Narragansett Bay. Ocean waves crashed against tall cliffs, the richest farmland in the state stretched in every direction, and the prosperous commercial seaport at the heart of the town promised a sophisticated and lively social life. In the years before the Revolution, Newport grew to the height of its powers, enjoying a golden age of art, architecture, and furniture design.
Underlying the city’s fortunes was the triangular trade. Molasses imported from Jamaica was converted to rum in twenty-two distilleries that occupied one square mile; the rum was shipped to Africa and exchanged for slaves, who were then sent to Jamaica and traded for more molasses. Eventually Rhode Island, and Newport in particular, grew to become the major player in the colonial slave trade. In one of those historical juxtapositions that remain inexplicable, during this same period religious groups of every kind lived in unprecedented harmony in Newport. Issued in 1647, the colony’s Code of Laws proclaimed that “all men may walk as their consciences persuade them, everyone in the name of his God.” Perhaps as early as 1658 the first Jews arrived in response to this promise. They came from Holland, Portugal, and Spain. Many were Marranos who had been forced to convert to Christianity. A hundred years later, having gained in numbers and wealth, they prepared to erect a synagogue. Their architect was Peter Harrison, who had already built some of Newport’s grandest structures, including such surviving examples as the Redwood Library and the Brick Market.
The building was dedicated on December 2,1763, and on the evening I arrived the congregation was meeting to celebrate the 225th anniversary of this, the oldest synagogue in North America. I watched from the balcony as the service and attendant ceremonies unfolded. In the audience were well-wishers from various churches, local and state politicians, and representatives from the nearby Naval War College.
When he visited the city in 1790, George Washington wrote the congregation that the government would give “to bigotry no sanction, [to] persecution no assistance.” Biblically, he added, “every one shall sit in safety under his own vine and figtree, and there shall be none to make him afraid.” Certainly the richly restrained Georgian synagogue Peter Harrison fashioned is eloquent of its founders’ sense that they had finally reached a safe haven, not only for themselves but for future generations.
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.
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.