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Christmas At The Palace

June 2024
7min read

In New Bern, North Carolina, enjoy the holidays in 1770—and 1830, and 1940

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.

At the John Wright Stanly House, a two-story Georgian structure with gray board siding built in 1783, the time was now Christmas 1780s. On that day the home’s owner would have worshiped at Christ Episcopal Church and perhaps enjoyed a card game; his teak card table was set with antique cards and ivories, or chips. The Dixon-Stevenson House presented Christmas in the 1830s, when the gracious clapboard dwelling was the brand-new home of a mayor of the town. Now the holiday was starting to come more into its own: Stockings were hung on the stairs, having been made popular by the publication of Clement Clarke Moore’s “A Visit From St. Nicholas” in 1823, gifts were just beginning to be exchanged, and one of the cakes on the sideboard was frosted with chocolate, a new ingredient in baking despite centuries as a familiar beverage.

The Commission House brought Christmas right up into living memory. One room was set up as a Victorian parlor at holiday time, but another reproduced Christmas during World War II, with a tree sprayed with Ivory soap flakes for artificial snow, molasses cakes set out because sugar was rationed, a Lionel train set on the floor, and V-mail on the side table.

New Bern is the attractive sort of town that was far busier in its earlier years than ever since and therefore has been able to maintain an unusual portion of its old buildings intact. Its recorded history began in 1710 when a band of Protestants expelled from Baden and Bavaria arrived, led by a Swiss baron named Christopher de Graffenried, who named his settlement after his nation’s capital. The emigrants’ numbers had already been sharply reduced by ocean storms, disease, and French piracy; within a year they were almost wiped out completely in a raid by the local Indians. In 1713 Graffenried gave up and went home, but the village hung on and gradually grew to become the county seat and then the provincial capital.

The house that General Burnside used as his headquarters was later the home of the inventor of Pepsi-Cola.

By 1773 New Bern was the site of Committee of Correspondence meetings, to the consternation of Gov. Josiah Martin, who had taken over when Tryon moved up to become governor of New York. Martin led the Loyalist troops in the area’s first Revolutionary battle, which was a fiasco for his side: Patriots removed the floor of a bridge he had to cross at night, greased its runners, and took 850 prisoners as they fell into the creek below.

On January 16, 1777, North Carolina’s first state governor took the oath of office at Tryon Palace, but as war raged, the seat of government kept moving around, and it never settled in New Bern again. In 1791 George Washington, on a tour through the South, saw Tryon Palace and judged it “a good brick building but now hastening to Ruins.” Seven years later, derelict, it was destroyed by fire.

New Bern flourished as a shipbuilding center in the early decades of the Republic, but the railroads that made it a target for Union troops also spelled the end of its economic might. As a port and thus as a distribution hub it dwindled in importance, and by the 1930s it had, in the words of the WPA guide to North Carolina, “subsided into a placid river town.”

It was an extremely placid New Bern that I drove around to come clear into Christmas present after my Tryon Palace tours through Christmases past. Downtown remains a several blocks’ spread of two-story brick storefronts and nineteenth-century churches except for some empty patches where urban renewal carved its swath in the 1970s, and the town has a lovely section of very old houses near the Neuse River. Those blocks, crammed with riches, are especially attractive in December; by some general agreement almost every house has a single white electric candle in every window, and the effect is subdued and handsome.

On Johnson Street I passed compact sidehall Federal houses built in the early nineteenth century by prominent free blacks. At Johnson and East Front I admired an imposing brick Greek Revival house that Gen. Ambrose Burnside used as his headquarters when he commanded the occupying troops; it was later the home of C. D. Bradham, who invented Pepsi-Cola four blocks away. The house’s kitchen, slave quarters, and smokehouse are now a separate, very cozy-looking residence behind it. Across the street, behind an 1884 home, stands an ancient cypress under which Indian and Revolutionary War treaties were once signed. Driving down these narrow streets past these closely packed, perfectly maintained homes from past centuries, darkness settling over them, I found New Bern a picture of Christmas peace.

The next day I explored a side of the town where the past doesn’t mean peace, the side where the freed blacks and runaway slaves of the Civil War settled and then struggled long and hard just to be allowed to stay. This was James City, directly across the Trent River, a sleepy neighborhood of single-story cinder-block and brick dwellings on sandy land behind a fertilizer factory. It was Sunday morning; the streets were as quiet as if no one was there, but a mass of parked cars showed that a fair portion of the population was attending services at Pilgrim Baptist Church in the middle of town. James City doesn’t have many businesses, but I did run across a small building with a sign that said “James City Historical Society.” No one was there.

Later I got through by phone to the head of the society, a man named Ben Watford. He explained that James City, founded in 1863, was the first free black settlement in the state. Many descendants of its first settlers are still there, he told me, but James City itself has moved. The U.S. government granted them the land; in the 1880s, after the end of Reconstruction, its pre-war white owner started fighting to get it back—or rather, started suing residents who refused to pay him rent. After long legal battles, the residents lost, so they had to pick up their houses and move them over to a new James City nearby, where they could own the land. That’s the James City of today.

In the 1930s and 1940s the population shrank as jobs dwindled. Then plans for a bridge over the river went through, and its path had to be changed or James City would have had to move yet again. “The Historical Society was founded by a descendant of the first settlers, Ms. Thelma Bryant,” Watford told me. “She’s eighty now. This little community has been through a lot, and it’s very poor. We haven’t had the resources to fight the things that happen to us, but we’re working to have a museum. Both for the history and as a way to create jobs.”

The society also plans to put on display a surviving slave quarters nearby and the remains of a slave burial grounds. There has even been talk of building a re-creation of the original James City along the Trent River, almost right across from Tryon Palace. It’s unlikely, but it would, I think, make a perfect complement. One site re-creates a scene of the nation’s struggle to cast off royalty; the other, a scene of its struggle to fully embrace the freedom and independence that resulted.

—Frederick Alien

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