2014-12-04 / Front Page

Seasonal Tours Offer a Different View

By Pat Blakeley


Mathew DeLaire pauses in front of the White Horse Tavern during the Holiday Histories Tour to speak about the Turtle Frolic festivities held on Goat Island during the colonial era. Mathew DeLaire pauses in front of the White Horse Tavern during the Holiday Histories Tour to speak about the Turtle Frolic festivities held on Goat Island during the colonial era. There’s never a shortage of tour options in Newport, with architectural, religious and historical gems seemingly tucked around every corner, replete with enthusiastic docents willing to share their knowledge. In December, however, the whole city does things a bit differently, offering another slant on Newport not found during the 11 other months of the year.

Holiday offerings include rarely-seen facets of our history, perspectives not typically shared, and, in some cases, fanciful interpretations of the season. Christmastime in Newport is not only educational, it’s illuminating, inspiring – and more than a little wonderful.

Although Fox News delights in telling us that “The War on Christmas” is a recent phenomenon, history reveals that the Puritans outlawed any sort of observance in the Massachusetts Bay colony back in the 17th century. Christmas merrymaking and revelry, they asserted, was too much in keeping with the Church of England, and those found honoring the day could be arrested and fined for the offense.


Undecked Halls offers a behind-the-scenes glimpse of winter caretaking at Rough Point. Undecked Halls offers a behind-the-scenes glimpse of winter caretaking at Rough Point. The Holiday Histories Lantern Tour, by the Newport Historical Society, explores the various celebrations and traditions embraced by the dissidents who fled to colonial Newport – and how they were tolerated by those who did not take part. The program also examines the evolution of festivities through the years. A Gilded Age letter to Santa, written in 1882 by Philip W.R. King of Kingscote, reveals a wish list not unlike those from many children of today, “I want a dog and a little sled and a little person doll and a trumpet…” Thursday, Friday, Saturday, 4:30 p.m.


The Great Hall at The Breakers is decorated as though the Vanderbilts were spending the holidays in Newport. The Great Hall at The Breakers is decorated as though the Vanderbilts were spending the holidays in Newport. The NHS also offers Colonial Newport in Winter Walking Tours Saturdays at 11 a.m., and guests hear stories of religious diversity and entrepreneurship and learn how colonial Newporters made their way through the difficult winter. Newporthistorytours.org. Call 401-847-8770 to reserve.

Of course, the Newport Mansions are bedecked in sparkling silver and gold, ready to receive guests at a moment’s notice. Who cares if the Vanderbilts spent their holidays in New York instead of the City by the Sea? The Breakers, Marble House and The Elms are all beautifully decorated for Christmas and offer more than an inkling of what it must have been like to live in that era, in those mansions, and in Gilded Age splendor.

The Breakers’ decor includes 28 trees, hundreds of plants, and a working model of the Vanderbilts’ New York Central Railroad. Displays at ornate Marble House accent the already over-the-top rooms, while the quiet beauty of The Elms is reflected in subtle flora and fauna incorporated into the French hunting lodge theme. All self-guided, the tours allow guests to stroll at their leisure. Visitors during special evening events will enjoy music and refreshments while they tour. Tours offered daily except Christmas. Newportmansions.org.

Visitors who want to experience an authentic Newport mansion in winter should check out the Undecked Halls tour at Rough Point, the Newport home of heiress, philanthropist, art collector and world traveler Doris Duke on Saturdays, Dec. 6, 13, 20 and 27.

UnDecked Halls takes guests through the first floor of the mansion, focusing on the winter caretaking traditions that took place at Rough Point, while Duke celebrated at her Shangri La estate in Honolulu. Attendees will see a slide show featuring rare photos of Duke during her Hawaiian holidays, complete with Hawaiian Christmas music. After learning about the lives and chores of the servants who kept the house running all year, visitors will be invited to the festively decorated staff dining room, not normally open to the public, for refreshments and to receive Christmas recipes from Duke’s personal archives. Tours are offered from 10 a.m.-3 p.m. on Saturdays. Newportrestoration.org.

In addition to holiday tours, several sites of historical interest will offer open houses during December.

The Beavertail Lighthouse Museum will hold an open house on Sunday, Dec. 7, from 1-3 p.m. Enjoy a cup of cider as you tour the museum, decorated with candlelit windows and fresh greenery. Beavertaillight.org.

The National Society of the Colonial Dames of America will host Christmas at Whitehall on Sunday, Dec. 7, re-creating a 1730s’ Christmas, honoring the time that Bishop Berkeley was in residence. Lift a cup of wassail and enjoy harp music while learning about the celebrations of the season. 311 Berkeley Ave., Middletown, 2-4 p.m. Whitehallmuseumhouse.org.

The Glen Manor House celebrates the yule on Sunday, Dec. 14, from 2-4 p.m. with entertainment, refreshments and a visit from Santa. 3 Frank Coelho Dr., Portsmouth. Glenmanorhouse.com.

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