What time is it? Candlelight Stroll at Strawbery Banke is a picturesque walk through three centuries

NH Weekend Editor
December 14. 2017 8:52AM
There are moments when time seems to blur around the edges here.

The stark white of today's LED world flickers and dims long enough for the past to materialize in candle-lit lanes, drawing rooms and shops.

In the Seacoast's Puddle Dock neighborhood, Strawbery Banke Museum has long given shape to the people who have left footprints in the dirt lanes here over more than three centuries.

But December is an especially magical journey into the past in a city where its annual Vintage Christmas in Portsmouth celebration cloaks doorways and street corners with a Dickensian sense of warmth and goodwill. It's everywhere: The shop keepers and servers decked out in top hats and floor-length skirts at Pickwick's Mercantile and Fezziwig's Food and Fountain; the picturesque steeple of the North Church keeping watch over quaint street lanterns; the grand Christmas tree in Market Square.

But at Strawberry Banke, the Victorian era is just one stop on a trip through holiday traditions. The 38th annual Candlelight Stroll, named for the hundreds of lighted candle lanterns that dot the grounds, draws between 6,000 and 8,000 people each year to the historic site's 10 acres and 30 decorated buildings over the course of three weekends, said Stephanie Seacord, the museum's director of marketing.

It's pleasantly disorienting to get caught up in a crowd of selfie-taking visitors one minute and then hear the swish of a passing bustle and the rhythmic clatter of a horse-drawn carriage the next.

And it's a walk through various eras, thanks to the architecture, decorations and a host of costumed role-players who take delight in representing specific stories and generations from house to house.

That includes Mrs. Shapiro preparing a Hanukkah celebration in her 1919 Russian Jewish kitchen; Mrs. Goodwin, her family and servants setting a Victorian Christmas; and the Abbotts awaiting news of their soldier fighting in Europe in the Second World War.

“The costumed role-players are a mix of paid interpreters and volunteer junior role-players who qualify to participate by attending the Junior Roleplayer Camp at Strawbery Banke,” Seacord said.

Experiencing history

On one quiet stretch running the length of a handful of historic homes, the only sound is the scuffing of a lone pair of boots in the distance until a crystalline voice breaks the stillness of the night with a pensive Christmas carol. Eliza Ruth Watson of Gray, Maine, also known as the choir mistress in these parts, passes by with a smile, singing “The First Noel” as she makes her way over to an outdoor fire to visit with Dawn Coutu of Concord, Puddle Dock's storyteller.

Nearby, in the glow of path lanterns, a whimsical sign lets strollers know who is at work inside the Wheelwright House, which was built at the time of the American Revolution and is named after maritime captain John Wheelwright.

Through the wooden front door and over the threshold of a darkened room sits tinsmith George Monte of Munson, Mass. The room is lit by the glow of pinpricks of light streaming from a row of tin lanterns, while a small beam at a piece of machinery illuminates the tinsmith's work and casts a hazy half moon of light on a salmon- and fern-colored wall. He guides visitors through his craft, punching groves into star-shaped tin pieces, which gather in a basket at his feet.

At the corner of Court and Washington streets, the Chase House, decorated to reflect life in 1805, pings with the distinctive plucking sound of a harpsichord. The mood is set the moment a visitor crosses the threshold into the parlor, where ornate Georgian woodwork draws the eye to the impressive fireplace.

Richard Spicer, a New Hampshire native and Kittery, Maine, resident, sits at a small, antique harpischord, his fingers running nimbly up and down the keys in distinctive period pieces.

Spicer is a familiar presence at Strawbery Banke's Candlelight Stroll and is appreciative of the home named after Portsmouth merchants who lived here for more than a century. His antique harpsichord is a handcrafted model that he jokes is small enough to fit in the back of his car for transport to the museum grounds. But it has a full-bodied sound that fits the acoustics of the wood-and-plaster room and draws visitors into fold-up seats arranged around Spicer.

Music around the museum grounds also will include piano music in the TYCO Visitors Center by Nathaniel Cowen from 7 to 9 p.m. on Saturday and the Seacoast Academy of Music from 7 to 9 p.m. Sunday; Great Bay Sailor in the cider shed and stable from 5 to 9 p.m. Saturday, with Gary Sredzienski playing there from 4 to 5:45 p.m. and Jeff Warner & Friends playing from 6:15 to 8 p.m. on Sunday; holiday carols from the Portsmouth Christian Academy, Winnacunnet Chamber Singers and Seacoast Men of Harmony on Saturday and the Profile Chorus, Granite State Chorale and Arts in Reach ensembles Sunday, all in the Aldrich Garden.

HistoryHoliday or vacationPortsmouthPhoto Feature

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