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Vintage Christmas at Strawbery Banke

Celebrate Holiday History at Strawbery Banke's Candlelight Stroll

Strawbery Banke is one of New England’s favorite outdoor history museums where costumed role-players entertain and educate visitors with real stories from the people who lived in this historic neighborhood. The museum is set on ten acres in Portsmouth’s Puddle Dock neighborhood, and most of their thirty-two historic houses are set on their original foundations, the earliest of which dates to 1695.

“Strawbery Banke is less about a specific historical time and more about the neighborhood,” explains Alena Shellenbean, Manager of Special Events. “We want to tell stories about real people whose lives are a lot more like our own than people think. It’s great when someone can say, ‘Yes, I relate to this’.”  

Strawbery’s Banke’s annual Christmas celebration, Candlelight Stroll, is a must-see for visitors to the Portsmouth area, dubbed “The Christmas Capital of North America” by Travel + Leisure. Going on its thirty-seventh year, Candlelight Stroll transforms the museum into a festive winter wonderland that remains rooted in Strawbery Banke’s educational mission.

“The museum is always evolving, and Candlelight Stroll’s annual theme reflects that,” says Shellenbean. “Just recently, we repaired one of the houses that had never been opened to the public before, and it currently hosts a maritime exhibit. That made our choice of this year’s theme easy.”

The 2016 theme is “Gifts from the Sea,” and, as Shellenbean points out, is a particularly fruitful topic area for the museum to explore. “Portsmouth is a port city,” she explains. “The ocean and river are huge parts of people’s lives. Their stories are impacted by the jobs they had at the shipyard, or as shipbuilders. The ocean was part of the foods they ate and the gifts they gave. Today, we’re kind of separated from where our food comes from and where our clothes come from. This is a chance to remind people of where these things really come from.”

Strawbery Banke’s Christmas celebrations are fun and festive, featuring food, music, holiday crafts, and abundant decorations made from plants taken right from the museum’s own gardens. But the activities are also steeped in authenticity and meticulous historical research. “We never lose sight of our ultimate goals,” Shellenbean explains. “We’re always doing research, like looking ladies’ magazines from the Victorian era to learn about how they decorated for Christmas. We want to tell stories from different aspects of life.”

Costumed role-players are central to Strawbery Banke’s work, at Christmas and year-round. As Shellenbean points out, interpreters experience a range of reactions to their work. “We’ve seen it all,” she says. “There are kids who really want to pretend, while others are more skeptical. But it’s a way to connect with people—to get into the emotions. People relate to things that are hard to get across with facts and dates. We talk about families and about the ways that historical events shaped the lives of actual people.”

Ice skating on Puddle Dock Pond, right in the heart of the museum, is a favorite among staff and visitors alike. “The skating rink is a big part of the winter experience,” says Shellenbean. “It’s a historical activity. People have used the frozen pond for recreation and transportation for centuries. But it’s also great for the community. People can get outside and enjoy winter.”

Preparing Candlelight Stroll takes a monumental effort from Strawbery Banke’s entire staff, plus a cadre of volunteers. But for Shellenbean, their hard work and sacrifice always pay off. “Candlelight stroll is an escape from the modern day. It brings a historical magic—people want to feel that magic like they did when they were kids. The most rewarding part is watching families talk to each other about their own family traditions.”

By Ettractions Digital Content Editor,  EMILY JARMOLOWICZ

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