A couple of years ago, I became an accidental expert on holiday celebrations in Connecticut.
I knew little about the varied and sometimes idiosyncratic holiday practices in the state until I was commissioned by Globe Pequot Press to produce a photography book titled A Connecticut Christmas: Celebrating the Holiday in Classic New England Style. Over the course of two seasons, I visited 60 locations in 40 towns. What became most evident, besides the fact we live in a very beautiful state, especially at Christmastime, is that the holidays bring out the best in people. Everyone I encountered was friendly, helpful and excited to share their traditions with me. They graciously welcomed me into their homes, businesses and communities, even though it was the busiest time of year. I found Christmas was more about spending time with friends and family, and the spirit of giving rather than commercialism. This is what makes the holidays in Connecticut so special. Here are some of my favorite places to enjoy the season.
The 18th-century Neapolitan Crèche at the Abbey of Regina Laudis is, of course, located in the town of Bethlehem. It is housed in an old barn, of all places, and is sparsely lit, save for the warm glow of light shining on this intricately hand-carved nativity. It has been fully restored by experts from New York’s Metropolitan Museum of Art, which is reason alone to see it. Sixty-eight figurines and 20 animals are set in a rural Italian village encased in a 15-foot-by-10-foot, climate-controlled diorama that takes up an entire wall. From the masterful carvings to the costumes, the level of detail commands your attention. Peering into the clear glass window to study the artwork reminds me of childhood visits to New York City and being captivated by the holiday scenes depicted in the store windows on Fifth Avenue. Rumor has it the crèche was presented to the King of Sardinia in 1720 on his coronation. It found its way to the abbey’s Benedictine nuns in 1947 when artist and philanthropist Loretta Hines Howard donated it, and has remained a gift for all to see ever since. The crèche is open for free viewing every day from 10 a.m. to 4 p.m. from Nov. 23 until Jan. 6. 203-266-7727, abbeyofreginalaudis.org
The Boar’s Head and Yule Log Festival at Hartford’s Asylum Hill Congregational Church is a feast for the senses. As soon as I enter the 153-year-old church, a maiden donning a crown of leaves escorts me to my seat as majestic music performed by a brass ensemble wafts through the 1,000-seat nave. The church itself becomes the stage for this interactive play featuring a cast of more than 250 people. As the audience is ushered in, jugglers and jesters run energetically up and down the aisles while sprites use the narrow tops of pews for balancing beams. Kings in flowing red robes and queens adorned in gold-threaded gowns hand out chocolate coins as the medieval celebration of the Epiphany begins. During the 90-minute performance, there is a constant flurry of activity in three aisles all at once. Pay close attention or you might miss one of the elaborately costumed lords, ladies, knights, woodsmen, peasants, dancers and mimes, or any one of the live animals including a camel, llama and shining black stallion. The choir increases in volume and intensity as a grand procession of man and beast culminates at the sanctuary creating a colorful tableau, until the resounding “Gloria” is heard, signifying the birth of the Christ child and the finale. This season’s festival offers five performances: Jan. 4 at 7:30 p.m., Jan. 5 at 3:30 and 6 p.m., and Jan. 6 at 1:30 and 5 p.m. After each performance, audience members are invited to a gala reception in the church’s Drew Hall. Call or go online to reserve tickets. 860-525-5696, ahcc.org
One of the most original things to do during the holiday, or anytime, for that matter, is to take a llama for a walk. Debbie Labbe, owner of Country Quilt Llama Farm in Cornwall, has two at the ready for a jaunt. The first thing that strikes me when I meet llamas Jack and Peanut is their size. They are a lot bigger in person. It is a little unnerving, but as it turns out, llamas are very gentle. When I insist they pause for a photo, they begin craning their necks and making strange sounds to let me know they have had enough of this standing around. And so we get moving. While making our way through a snow-covered trail, Labbe patiently answers all my llama questions while educating me about these fluffy creatures (other than Jack and Peanut, the farm is also home to Harley, Annie, Alex and Theo). When the llamas are not out walking around the wooded trails of Cornwall and the White Memorial Conservation Center in Litchfield, they are doing in-school programs or pet therapy at nursing homes. Contact Labbe to schedule a walk and find out about rates. 860-248-0355, countryquiltllamafarm.com
The Lockwood-Mathews Mansion in Norwalk is one of the grandest private estates ever built in Connecticut. During the holiday season it is decked out in full splendor the way it would have been on Christmas Eve when occupied by the Lockwood-Mathews families from 1868-1939. At the center is a grand staircase designed by the renowned Herter Brothers. The crushed red velvet carpet covering each step is festooned with poinsettias and garlands that lead up to a large lighted tree on a landing. In the dining room, a sumptuous feast is laid out on a table with fine linen and china from the museum’s collection. In other rooms, holiday trees, wreaths and shimmering packages brighten carved wooden fireplaces, mirrors and wall moldings, and add warmth to marble mantles and pillars indicative of the Gilded Age. A Magical Christmas Eve runs from Nov. 23-Jan. 6. Tickets can be purchased online. 203-838-9799, lockwoodmathewsmansion.com
Sitting atop a 200-foot cliff overlooking the Connecticut River, Gillette Castle in East Haddam is a curious structure resembling a large drip sand castle one might see at the beach. William Gillette, known for his on-stage portrayal of Sherlock Holmes, built it in 1914 using tens of thousands of fieldstones. It has 24 rooms, each unique, and a 30-foot-by-50-foot main salon that during the holidays boasts an 18-foot Christmas tree decorated by the Friends of Gillette Castle. Every year this volunteer group spruces up the interior with antique ornaments and Victorian decorations that show how it might have looked when Mr. Gillette was in residence entertaining his theatrical friends at a festive dinner. The castle is open for viewing Friday through Sunday from Nov. 23-Dec. 23. While parking is free, there is a small fee for castle tours. 860-526-2336
Light Up the Night
There is no shortage of light shows during the holidays. Two of the largest you drive through are New Haven’s Fantasy of Lights at Lighthouse Point Park (Nov. 15-Dec. 31) and Hartford’s Holiday Lights Fantasia at Goodwin Park (Nov. 22-Jan. 1). Each boasts dozens of large-scale animated displays and countless twinkling lights. Ivoryton’s Illuminations is held on the town’s tiny green Dec. 1-31 and uses more than 400,000 colored lights, creating a dazzling display. But if I had to choose one it would be the Festival of Silver Lights (Nov. 20-Jan. 2) at Hubbard Park in Meriden. The first time I spied it from the highway I almost ran myself off the road. It is an inviting wonderland with 350,000 white lights on trees, and armatures delicately fashioned into castles, flowers, angels, trains, reindeer, swans and more. The white lights are more calming than the seas of color, and their austerity more beautiful when viewed against the contrast of a black winter’s sky.
There is something magical about strolling through a 19th-century seafaring village at night with only the light of a lantern to guide you. As I follow a role player donned in period clothing through the quiet streets at Mystic Seaport Museum for a Lantern Light Tour, I feel as though I had stepped back in time. There is no 21st-century technology, cellphones, cars or sounds of modernity to diminish the belief that it really could be Christmas Eve in 1876. Among the only sounds are the clomping of horse hooves pulling a carriage. A whale ship, a sail loft, a fishing schooner, a blacksmith shop, and other buildings and vessels pertinent to life in a coastal community are some of the scenes of this movable production. In each location, costumed players reveal more of this Christmas story, offering a peek into our maritime past. Tours run from Nov. 24-Dec. 23. Tickets can be purchased online. 860-572-0711, mysticseaport.org
Not far from the historic seaport, throngs of people line the shores of the Mystic River near the drawbridge and Mystic River Park in anticipation of the village’s Holiday Lighted Boat Parade. Every year, 30 or so vessel owners try to outdo each other by decorating their boats to the nines. Each vessel is bedecked with colored lights. Some have large, inflatable Santas or penguins, others have animated seahorses, manatees and dolphins. An Elvis impersonator has even been known to dance on the bow to “Hound Dog.” Prizes are given by the event’s sponsor, the Greater Mystic Chamber of Commerce, for the most innovative, best dressed, most charismatic crew, and most holiday spirit. But everyone deserves recognition; the boaters do this on their dime and time for the rest of us to enjoy. This year’s free event, also featuring Santa’s arrival on a 60-foot tugboat and the lighting of the Christmas tree, casts off on Nov. 24. 860-572-9578, mysticchamber.org
While smaller, Essex’s boat parade, Trees in the Rigging, is no less spectacular. Crowds of carolers make their way by lantern light and flashlight from the head of Main Street to the Connecticut River Museum. A parade of perfectly polished antique cars glides past as I stroll alongside the traditionally donned Sailing Masters of 1812 Fife and Drum Corps, who delight us with period music. On the Connecticut River, 15 vessels ornamented with lights and colorful trees, reindeer and wreaths fastened to masts parade back and forth while costumed Santas and elves wave from the ship’s bows. After the parade, Santa’s boat docks at the museum to hear Christmas wishes. Sponsored by the Essex Historical Society, the Essex Board of Trade and the Connecticut River Museum, this free and fun-filled family event takes place on Nov. 25.860-767-8269, ctrivermuseum.org
In celebration of Hanukkah, also known as the Festival of Lights, local Chabad chapters offer festivities and menorah lightings across the state that are free and open to all. Touted as Connecticut’s largest Hanukkah event, the annual Fire on Ice kicks off on Dec. 2 at 4 p.m. at Blue Back Square in West Hartford. The event has grown over the years and is expected to draw at least 1,000 people this year. There will be live music, from hip hop to rock, by New York-based Jewish a cappella group Six13; Mediterranean and traditional Hanukkah foods such as potato latkes; arts and crafts and 3-D dreidel printing; a gelt drop during which kids collect chocolate coins raining down from an extended fire ladder; and a new chocolate gelt factory where kids can make their own sweet coins. The star of the show is an impressive 8-foot-tall menorah carved on site from ice. 860-232-1116,chabadhartford.com
Another favorite is Fairfield’s Chanukah Village, which takes place on Dec. 2 courtesy of Chabad of Fairfield. The Post Road in downtown Fairfield is turned into an enchanting village with a candle-making booth, potato pancakes and jelly doughnuts, horse-drawn carriage rides, storytellers, crafts, face painting, and more. At 4 p.m., everyone is invited to Sherman Green to help build a 7-foot-tall menorah using Legos that will be lit by local dignitaries. Live music, refreshments and dancing will follow. 203-373-7551, chabadff.com
Eat, Drink & Be Merry
If you are hungry and want to take in some old-fashioned Christmas cheer, the Griswold Inn in Essex and its Game Dinner do not disappoint. The game menu is a meat-eater’s dream, with bison, venison and moose along with traditional holiday favorites like prime rib and Indian pudding. For those who avoid meat, the regular menu features vegetarian selections. Sitting in the 242-year historic dining room, I am surrounded by paintings of steam ships and other historical artifacts covering every inch of wall that had been bequeathed to the Gris over its many years by past patrons. The waitstaff is costumed Royal Court Singers who perform seasonal classics tableside. On Dec. 1, the innkeeper’s favorite night of the year, guests can also hear the harmonized vocals of the a cappella singing group, the Coast Guard Idlers, as they stroll the dining rooms and Tap Room making merriment. The festive feast is served nightly all December. Reservations are recommended. 860-767-1776, griswoldinn.com
Don’t visit the Wood Memorial Library & Museum on an empty stomach when the South Windsor institution hosts its annual Gingerbread House Festival. While you can’t eat them — as tempting as it may be — the houses are worth seeing because the designs are so imaginative. Displays featured in previous years have included lighthouses and fishing shacks, a doughnut shop with a gumdrop roof, train cars with peppermint candy wheels hauling edible gifts, a house with miniature marshmallows as snow, and even a replica of the Bissell Tavern in Windsor with Rice Krispies sheep, Shredded Wheat for roof shingles and pretzel square windows flanked by chocolate shutters. The contest is open to professional bakers and artisans, but what’s so nice about this festival is that students, community members and amateurs also enter. See what they cook up this year from Nov. 23-Dec. 15. Should you want to try your hand at making a gingerbread house, sign up for the library’s two-part workshop ($50) led by master cake decorator Linda Stevenson on Nov. 15 and 16. If your creation is truly magical, try entering it for the festival. 860-289-1783, facebook.com/woodlibraryandmuseum