For something different to light up the holiday season, go for a candlelight stroll through Strawbery Banke Museum in Portsmouth. The open-air museum has hosted these romantic evening events for the past 39 years and this year will hold special guided tours of four of their historic houses.
Each one is decorated for the holidays according to its own period, and costumed “residents” add accounts of holiday celebrations in that era. The Boston Globe called it one of the Top 10 holiday events in New England.
Strawbery Banke is the largest historic preservation site in New Hampshire and the effort to save the period homes dates from the mid-20th century when the rage was to tear down old buildings in an effort at urban renewal. In Portsmouth, a reaction to that drive led not just to saving some of the most historic homes in the city, but also to the preservation of an entire neighborhood and its multi-century story.
Strawbery Banke Museum brings that Puddle Dock neighborhood to life in its homes and workshops. What makes it so different from other places of this type, such as Old Sturbridge Village, is that at Strawbery Banke every building is preserved to its own period of time: from the colonial era, the revolutionary and federal eras, the 19th-century revivalist period and the 20th century, right up to the mid-1950s.
For the annual Strawbery Banke Candlelight Stroll, each of the houses selected that year is decorated for holidays in the style that would have been used when it was built and lived in, presenting a fascinating and rare chance to experience how holiday fashions, decoration and styles changed over the centuries. In the Goodwin Mansion, the governor’s wife and servants decorate with handmade decorations in the fashion of the Queen Victoria; savor the Hanukah celebrations of the early 20th century in the 1919 kitchen of the Shapiro family. The more restrained celebrations of the World War II era are evident at the home and neighborhood store of the Abbott family.
Even for those who have been to Strawbery Banke during the summer, the candlelight stroll is a different experience. All around the 10-acre site, candlelight and lanterns cast their cheerful flickering glow, while in the houses the scents of holiday cooking waft through the air. Small groups of carolers walk the streets and paths and Puddle Dock inhabitants welcome guests into the houses and walk the lanes dressed in period clothing.
It's cold in Portsmouth in December and the wind can blow in from the nearby harbor, so dress warmly for this outing. To warm up, stop by the cider house at the end of the tour where you will find cider and drinks and can linger to enjoy vintage music.
The Strawbery Banke Candlelight Stroll for 2018 is scheduled for weekend evenings beginning on Dec. 1 and continuing each Saturday and Sunday evening through Dec. 23. It’s best to pre-register as early as possible in order to get the date you want at strawbery-banke-museum.simpletix.com. The Stroll is held Saturdays from 5 to 9 p.m., and Sundays from 4 to 8 p.m. Tickets are $25 for adults, $12.50 for ages 5-17, under age 5 free. The family rate is $60 for two adults and two children over age 5. Active duty military families and veterans are free.
Parking at Strawbery Banke is limited for this event, so it is best to park at public parking, such as the Hanover Street Garage, the Portwalk Garage or the Spare Spot Parking Lot on Hanover Street. You can walk from these to Strawbery Banke or take the Vintage Christmas Trolley (strawberybanke.org/TrolleyMap2016.pdf). Take note, however, that parking will be tight the evening of Dec. 1 because of the annual Portsmouth Christmas Parade that starts the annual Vintage Christmas In Portsmouth celebrations.
If you are unable to make the Christmas Stroll, you may want to consider enjoying Strawbery Banke’s holiday spirit during the Guided Holiday House Tours, held during the week after Christmas, Dec. 26 through Dec. 31. This includes guided tours of the Goodwin Mansion (Victorian), the Chase House (Classic period), the Shapiro House (the spirit of Hanukah) and the Abbott House (wartime 1940s). These tours are held on the hour from 9:45 a.m. through 1:45 p.m. Adult tickets are $15, or $9 for ages 5-17 and under age 5 admitted free.
December is a beautiful time to enjoy Portsmouth. Vintage Christmas in Portsmouth (vintagechristmasnh.org) includes a number of other attractions and events including special shows at the Portsmouth Music Hall and the Labrie Family Skate at Puddle Dock Pond, an outdoor skating area. Few streets in New England can match lively Market Street for its small shops, boutiques and galleries filled with unique gifts.
Strawbery Banke has special deals with two local hotels (see link above) and Portsmouth is well-known as a dining destination. We like the farm-to-table menu of Black Trumpet Bistro at 29 Ceres St., and the succulent fresh oysters at Row 34, found at 5 Portwalk Place. The laid-back Ceres Bakery at 51 Penhallow St. is a good stop for sandwiches and fresh-baked pastries.
Stillman (Tim) Rogers is a travel writer and photographer, author of “It Happened in New Hampshire” and co-author of “New Hampshire Off the Beaten Path.” He blogs about travel news and destinations at bestgetaways.wordpress.com.