Christmas in Portsmouth
Where to find the holiday spirit (and great local shops)
Why go to Portsmouth in December? The historic houses are all closed, the flowers aren’t painting Prescott Park in rainbow colors, cruise boats no longer tour the harbor or travel to the Isles of Shoals. So why go?
Because nobody “does” Christmas like Portsmouth. Even with Covid-related limitations, Vintage Christmas in Portsmouth is still a colorful, jovial time filled with holiday spirit, and we want to be a part of it.
Strawbery Banke is always at the heart of a Portsmouth’s Christmas festivities. This year’s Candlelight Stroll will not include the interiors of the historic houses as it has in past years. Although we won’t be able to watch Mrs. Shapiro make potato latkes on her woodstove as she prepares for Hanukkah, or see the elaborate Victorian decorations in the Goodwins’ mansion, the stroll through the museum grounds will still be enlivened by costumed roleplayers sharing the pleasures and traditions of Christmases past.
During this year’s Candlelight Stroll Under the Stars, the Puddle Dock neighborhood comes to life with lights and greens decorating the exteriors of the historic homes and shops. Hundreds of candle lanterns light the way as guests stroll through the lanes. Doorways are decorated with wreaths and swags of fresh greens and dried flowers preserved from the summer gardens.
Costumed performers greet visitors with music and stories, and Ice Dance International’s vintage skaters perform during the evening at Puddle Dock Pond. (At other times in the winter, the pond is a venue for pond hockey, and is open for public skating.) The Candlelight Stroll Under the Stars is held on Saturday and Sunday evenings from December 4 through December 18.
A few blocks away, Market Square and Market Street are aglow too. Windows of specialty shops, boutiques and galleries present such a panorama of eye candy that even the most dedicated non-shopper is lured inside at least one. Nearly every doorway in the two blocks of historic mercantile buildings leads into a fresh selection of fine handcrafts, works of art, creative toys, smart household utensils or stylish wearables.
Tulips American Handcrafts sells mostly works made in New Hampshire, Maine and Massachusetts, with a preference for things out of the ordinary. You’ll find colorful painted birdhouses by Maggie Nuhic, and Betty Wish’s whimsical “Lobster Art” along with unique jewelry pieces and works in all mediums.
Attrezzi Fine Kitchen Accessories and Wine Room makes our mouths water every time we step in. Look here for cocktail mixers, barrel-aged white balsamic, whipped chocolate honey, cheese knives, truffle-flavored olives, chocolate covered figs, crêpe skimmers, glögg mulling spices, Icelandic extra-bitter chocolate, aprons with cheeky sayings and other necessities of a well-provided kitchen.
Prelude Boutique carries handmade jewelry, plus fair trade and U.S.A.-made accessories; The Wear House is a consignment clothing shop; Ganesh Imports features stylish casual wear and accessories along with home décor; Scallops Mineral & Shell Emporium is a jewel box full of polished stones and crystals; Bliss Boutiques sells women’s casual wear and SAULT New England is a menswear store.
G. Willikers is a wonderland for kids, packed with more unique toys and children’s books than anyone has room for under the tree. Carrying on the wordplay with shop names, Macro Polo is a long-standing source of jokes and gag gifts.
Among the Market Street shops are Durbar Square Restaurant, serving Nepalese dishes, and Portsmouth Brewery, with a casual pub vibe and a long inventory of brews on tap. Tucked down Commercial Alley is Cava, a wine bar with tapas. In good weather, you can sip your wine under Cava’s Vertical Garden, an outdoor wall of living plants. Also on Commercial Alley is Fa La Lo, a boutique of handcrafted gifts, décor and clothing made in New Hampshire and fair trade goods.
Shop windows have an extra appeal this year, as showcases for the Portsmouth Historical Society’s 31st Annual Gingerbread House Contest & Exhibition. Through December 22, downtown shops will spotlight gingerbread houses and other structures, which have in the past included gingerbread boats, cars, barns — even trees. Everything must be edible, even the interior supports and the “glue” that holds it together.
The theme this year is “These Are a Few of My 603 Things,” referencing the Portsmouth Historical Society’s current exhibit, N.H. Now: A Photographic Diary of Life in the Granite State. This two-year project sent nearly 50 photographers across the state to paint a portrait of New Hampshire’s people, places, events and culture. The photographs, divided regionally, are on display at eight different venues, each featuring those of that region. The photographs will be on display through December 23.
Not all the historic attractions are closed in December, and right on Market Square is the venerable Portsmouth Athenaeum. It’s easy to recognize by the cannons at either side of the front door, captured by Commodore Perry at the Battle of Lake Erie. Inside, the Randall Room Exhibition Gallery (open afternoons) houses exhibits of artifacts from the historical collections.
Although the historic walking tours ended in October, the Portsmouth Historical Society’s Discover Portsmouth is open, with exhibitions spotlighting the art and history of the Seacoast Region. Large information panels feature historic houses and landmarks, and smaller galleries host changing exhibits.
In the theater, you can watch “Welcome to Historic Portsmouth” to learn more about the city’s four centuries of history. From May through October, historic walking tours begin here, some covering specialized topics, such as women’s history and the evolution of various neighborhoods.
The self-guided Black Heritage Trail, highlighting Black culture in the Colonial and Federal periods through the civil rights movement of the 1960s, can be followed year-round. The trail begins at Long Wharf, where slaves were auctioned straight from the ships that carried them from Africa.
The most recent addition to the trail began in 2003 when public works excavation unearthed the remains of 13 people, shown by DNA analysis to be of African descent. Research found that this was once a field used for burial of enslaved and free Blacks in the 1700s, and it is believed that as many as 200 people were buried here. The African Burying Ground Memorial Park honors these people in a contemplative setting with sculptures and historical information.