Community Christmas Events and Experiences
A holiday guide to NH’s wassail trail
“Wassail! Wassail! All over the town”—
So goes the first line of a Christmas carol that dates back to the Middle Ages. The wassail bowl, decorated with garlands and ribbons, and filled with spiced ale or mulled wine, was carried from house to house on Christmas Eve to get all to join in the festivities. “Was hál” they would say as they shared a drink, “Be in good health.” A song would be exchanged for a gift, and they’d be on their way to the next.
Celebrating the season as a community is a long tradition, broken only by the Puritans who didn’t celebrate Christmas. (Too much wassailing going on for them.) Today, though, we’d be surprised if someone showed up at our door with a punch bowl, inviting us to partake. Even the Christmas carolers, descendants of the wassailers, have disappeared from our neighborhoods.
With Christmas in New Hampshire now upon us, we wanted to encourage some modern-day wassailing by offering an overflowing of holiday happenings that bring us together for merrymaking. Some are classics; some are offbeat. All are guaranteed to lift your spirits and create the magic of days gone by.
Let’s start in Bethlehem.
The town of Bethlehem, yes, little (pop. 2,526), just north of Franconia Notch, comes alive at Christmas. And it’s not just the we-were-in-Bethlehem-at-Christmas quest that draws visitors. There are (at least) two unique ways to celebrate there.
For starters, head for Christmas Tree Lane at The Rocks Estate, where it’s always Christmas. “We sing ‘Jingle Bells’ all year long to stay in the spirit,” says Nigel Manley, The Rocks’ director. During that time, they’ve been pruning the branches of their balsam and fir trees — all 45,000 of them — so they’re perfectly shaped come Christmas. They’re so special that some people claim them — even decorate them still standing — as early as September. So pick your tree (there are wreaths too), then enjoy a horse-drawn wagon ride and some s’mores around the fire pit.
Hard as it is to leave the scent of the balsams, go into downtown Bethlehem, to the post office, and take your Christmas cards with you. There, you can get them postmarked with “Bethlehem, NH” and rubber-stamped with a special design that depicts the town, its rolling hills and a bright star above. Postmaster Brian Thompson says that every season they handle more than 50,000 pieces of mail, most of them cards, many sent by the box-full from all over the world. “We put in a little more time,” he says, “but it’s well worth it.” After doing it for 22 years, he sees generations of families, “three, sometimes four generations,” come to experience it each year.
Some of the people arriving at the post office have made the trip from the Omni Mount Washington Resort in nearby Bretton Woods. They’re there to mail their children’s letters to Santa, written as part of the holiday celebration at the resort. From December 23 to Christmas Day, guests enjoy “A Holly Jolly Christmas,” with tons of indoor and outdoor activities for all ages, a favorite one the horse-drawn sleigh ride. There are stops for peppermint brownies and cocoa, and, of course, the great Christmas feast. It unfolds amid the century-old hotel’s lush decorations. “The grand dame shines brightly with the glitter and tinsel,” says the resort’s Craig Clemmer. “It really is magical.”
Another historic landmark — the Jackson covered bridge, built in 1876 — is the entryway to more enchantment. Christmas in the white-steepled Jackson Village — so beautiful it draws photographers and artists from all over the world — is sublime. For four weekends in the heart of the White Mountains, Jackson and its near neighbors Intervale, Glen, Bartlett and Hart’s Location offer all manner of Yuletide fun at “Traditionally Yours.” You can enjoy craft fairs, open houses, drink tastings, storytelling, cookie decorating and, of course, Santa lighting the community tree. But, best of all, says Kathleen Driscoll of the Jackson Area Chamber of Commerce, there’s the Jingle Bell Chocolate Tour: “It’s spectacular, magical, it truly is.” A horse-drawn sleigh takes you through town, stopping at inns and stores, and ringing jingle bells to summon a myriad of chocolate goodies.
If cookies are more your style, you can take the Inn to Inn Holiday Cookie and Candy Tour on December 14 and 15. A stay at one of the 11 participating inns, all of them decked out in their Christmas best, guarantees you “The Best Sugar High,” as New Hampshire Magazine named the tour. At each of the inns, not only will you have treats from savory to sweet, you’ll get the recipes for them in a keepsake cookbook, plus a whole bunch of decorating ideas from the inns. It’s not much of a trek between the inns; they’re about 15 minutes apart, with many much closer.
Just south of the White Mountains, in Eaton, right on the edge of Crystal Lake, there’s a quieter Christmas happening. At the town’s historic Little White Church, pianist Dana Cunningham performs with cellist Max Dyer from December 6-8. The concerts on December 6 and 7 are at 7:30 p.m. (these two shows also feature singer/songwriter Carol Noonan), with the December 8 show at 4 in the afternoon. At the 4 p.m. show “the light is just going to dusk,” says Cunningham. “It’s a beautiful moment in the church.” Beautiful too is the acoustic music that Windham Hill’s William Ackerman has praised as “touching the soul.” Cunningham, playing the church’s Steinway grand piano, and Dyer on the cello offer a program that’s both traditional and not, from the “We Three Kings” carol to the haunting “Lullay My Liking.” No matter what people’s beliefs and traditions are, Cunningham says, “I want to offer something with depth and meaning, something beautiful. Beauty unites us.”
One thing everyone can agree on is that “The Nutcracker” is a must-see Christmas classic. The Tchaikovsky ballet is performed in many venues large and small in New Hampshire, but one stands out. The production by the Northeastern Ballet Theatre rivals Boston’s, and for good reason. Its director is Edra Toth, a former Boston Ballet prima ballerina. She says, “The version we’re doing is the old Boston Ballet version, the one I remember doing.” In the three performances — Dover, December 7 and 8, and Wolfeboro, December 15 —Toth makes it young-kid-friendly by softening parts that might be scary to them, and by keeping it fast-paced. To all ages, she says, “Expect to be thoroughly enchanted, thoroughly entertained.”
If your venture into the magical Land of the Sweets has whetted your appetite for candy, stop at Kellerhaus in Laconia. There you will find an unusual Christmas sweet — handmade ribbon candy. Not many places make the centuries-old candy anymore and even fewer make it by hand. The crew creates it with the same equipment that was used when the store opened in 1906. It’s not easy, even though there are only three ingredients — the weather has to be cool and dry, and a hot, gooey mass of candy has to be pulled into a long, thin ribbon and fed carefully into the circa 1880 crimping machine. People apparently appreciate the effort; on average the store sells 43,900 inches of the candy. That translates into about 1,000 boxes.
The simple pleasures of earlier times can be found at “Christmas at Canterbury” as well. Inside the historic Shaker buildings on December 7 and 14, you can sing carols at the Village Christmas tree lighting, see a 19th century magic show with Andrew Pinard of Hat Box Theatre, enjoy a sizable toy train display, learn about 19th and 20th century medicine in the infirmary, and hear about bygone days of education in the schoolhouse. And, to the accompaniment of old-time fiddle music, you can decorate gingerbread cookies, create ornaments, make Christmas cards and greet Santa in his mistletoe-bedecked historic costume. “We wanted to offer hands-on activities that people might not have done,” the Village’s Nicole Laurin says. “We wanted to show the village in a simpler time.”
You can go from the flicker of candlelight to the glow of 2 million LED bulbs with a short trek south to the New Hampshire Motor Speedway in Loudon. On a 2.5-mile drive around the Speedway property, you can see 400 different lighting displays. A fan favorite is going through two 130-foot-long illuminated tunnels that enter and leave the infield. “The tunnel is definitely the coolest part,” says Kristen Lestock of the Speedway. “There are so many lights in one place.” After the drive, stop for s’mores and a visit with Santa. Aside from being fun, it’s for a good cause — a portion of the proceeds go to charity.
The “Messiah,” now a fixture of the Christmas season, allowed its composer to be charitable in his time. Handel donated the proceeds of the oratorio’s debut to a debtors’ prison and a hospital. That debut, in 1742, was unusual because Handel staged a public rehearsal the day before the live performance. He did it, reportedly, to create buzz. Today, Handel’s innovation is being carried on by the Concord Community Chorus. Their “Messiah” performance is December 1; the public rehearsal is the day before, both at the South Congregational Church. With professional soloists and orchestra, the chorus will take the stage to sing the great work for the 89th time.
While in Concord, check out Red River Theatres, where you’ll find some of the best arthouse cinema around. For Christmas, the three-screen, state-of-the-art theater will serve up some serious nostalgia. Movies include “The Polar Express,” ” Elf,” “It’s A Wonderful Life” and “White Christmas.”
Ebenezer Scrooge, Jacob Marley, Bob Cratchit and Tiny Tim — who doesn’t know these characters from “A Christmas Carol”? Ever since Dickens crafted his tale of redemption in 1843, the play has been a favorite, and many venues stage it during the holidays. But the preeminent performance, hands down, is at The Palace Theatre in Manchester. “People say it doesn’t feel like Christmas until they see the play at The Palace,” says Hunter Ulbin, guest director of the Palace Youth Theatre. There are four ensembles of young actors, four Tiny Tims, to accommodate the 22 performances of the play, which run from December 6-22. The adult roles are played by professionals with a live orchestra. There are special effects that will wow you. And, to top it off, you’ll be greeted by carolers when you arrive.
Carolers will be at Currier too. As they have done for the past 26 years or so, this year, on December 7, auditioned members of the Manchester Choral Society sing classic carols in one of the museum’s galleries and in the restaurant foyer. “It’s a great way to start soaking up the spirit of the holiday season,” says the Choral Society’s Amanda Simeone. “It’s also part of our mission to promote the best in choral music in a variety of periods and styles.”
It’s been said that Ed Gerhard can make his guitar sing, something his concertgoers can attest to. The internationally known, Grammy-winning acoustic guitarist each year gives a concert in Portsmouth to celebrate the season. This year, on December 7 in Laconia and December 13-14 in Portsmouth, he again puts his soulful spin on traditional carols as well as performing on his own concert favorites. As Gerhard has said, “The music, the audience … the whole experience is profound for me. Sharing this experience with everyone is what being a musician is all about.” If you like guitar music and you like Christmas, this is the place to be.
And, if you like knowing the history of Christmases past, Strawbery Banke’s Candlelight Stroll is the place to be. The first three weekends of December, with the paths and streets of the outdoor living history museum lined with candles and lights, you can walk through more than 300 years of holiday celebrations — Colonial, Victorian, WWII and more. Each historic house, decorated as they would have been in the era, is filled with people in costume explaining their Christmas or Hanukkah traditions. There will also be carolers, sing-alongs and skating on the pond. “People come back every year,” says Strawbery Banke’s Alena Shellenbean. “It’s part of their holiday tradition. It’s a great way to get in the spirit.”
The spirit is on the move all through Portsmouth at Christmas. The Stroll is just part of the monthlong, citywide “Vintage Christmas” celebration. It kicks off on November 29 with the Portsmouth Historical Society’s 29th annual gingerbread house contest. The candy-trimmed confections will be displayed at the Historical Society first-floor gallery until December 22. The creations are juried, but you can take part in the People’s Choice voting. The annual tree lighting, a food drive and illuminated holiday parade through Market Square happens on December 7, and from November 27 to December 22 “Annie” will be performed at The Music Hall in collaboration with The Ogunquit Playhouse.
In Portsmouth’s version of off-Broadway, there is a gem of a performance at Pontine Theatre. From November 29 to December 8, “A New England Christmas” will be unveiled by Marguerite Mathews and Greg Gathers, Pontine’s co-artistic directors, who have produced more than 50 original works using gestural theatre, toy theatre, puppetry and storytelling. Greg Gathers says come to the performance “if you’re looking for something that’s new and different, but also has a sense of place that makes you feel warm and fuzzy.” There’s good reason why Pontine has been called “a small miracle.”
For another Christmas sweet treat, head west to Wilton. There you’ll find Nelson’s, a candy shop that does what few do these days — make candy canes by hand. “We’ve been doing it the same way since the early 1900s, for four generations,” says Nelson’s Manager Rachel Barnard. Thousands of people visit the store each year to buy the no-two-the-same candy canes; early in the season many storegoers watch the process of making them in the adjacent kitchen. With the scent of pure peppermint wafting in the air, the candy cane crew pulls the candy using an antique taffy machine, makes it into a loaf, applies the red and green stripes and forms the cane, all by hand, one by one. Barnard says, “Watching it happen makes people smile.”
There are more smiles to be had at the “Tuba Christmas” concert. Yes, tubas. And euphoniums, the smaller tubas. We’re used to seeing one in an orchestra, jazz band, oompah band or military parade, but this performance is all tubas. James Chesebrough says, “When I saw it for the first time 20 years ago, I said, ‘Holy mackerel, is this for real?’” Now Chesbrough, a Keene State music professor, is the Tuba Christmas conductor. It’s usually 30 to 40 players who come from far and near for one day, this year December 1 at Keene State, and play Christmas tunes with just an hour’s rehearsal as a group. Tuba Christmas is an international phenomenon, started almost 50 years ago as a tribute to a famous tuba player. In New Hampshire, there are similar tuba performances in Colebrook, New London, Plaistow and Wolfeboro. Chesebrough says the sound of all those tubas “is really quite lovely, not something you hear every day. It’s a great way to get in the spirit.”
The spirit is evident at La Salette of Enfield. Once the site of the state’s other Shaker community, it is now home to a Catholic religious order, the Missionaries of Our Lady of La Salette. Each year since 1954, the brothers have decked a 20-acre hillside with light displays that inspire and entertain throughout the whole month of December. Father John Sullivan says the theme this year, “Lighting Our Common Home,” is meant to enhance our awareness of the beauty of nature. He adds that there is also a display of 500 nativity scenes from all over the world. For generations of families, the festival of lights at La Salette has been, and is, a welcome sight in the darkest time of the year.
Also chasing away the darkness — “The Christmas Revels” in Lebanon (a new location for 2019). But here, it is the joy of storytelling, song and dance that lifts the spirts. The Revels, now in its 45th year, draws on traditions of world cultures to celebrate the winter solstice. This year, from December 21 to 23, it’s an English celebration of the winter solstice. Much of the cast, more than 70, young and old, are amateurs who audition to act, sing and dance. “My heart fills with joy seeing everyone act together,” says The Revels’ Lyndsay Rose. “It’s a one-of-a-kind experience.” Just because you’re in the audience doesn’t mean you won’t be singing and dancing. Right before intermission, the blare of trumpets signals the Morris dancers to lead the audience in a line dance to “The Lord of the Dance,” a joyful song that implores everyone to “Dance, dance, wherever you may be.”