By Lynne Hendricks
---- — The holidays represent a time to declare that, no matter what else may happen during the year, life’s finest moments can be immortalized in the twinkling of lights, the jingle of bells, and the laughter of friends around our table.
With so much good intent at stake, it’s no wonder that some of us go all out in the pursuit of creating an alluring holiday home, taking such special care with decorations so that even passers-by are moved by the display. In Newburyport, where one can easily imagine the city’s historic homes alight at Christmas long before the days of electricity, this is especially true.
That’s why the Custom House Maritime Museum’s annual Holiday House Tour has become such a popular tradition, offering guests a chance to glimpse beyond the window lights into some of the city’s finest homes transformed for the season.
According to co-chairwomen Kristin Hunter and Nancy Griffin, this year’s tour offers something for everyone, from the historic to the modern, and to the truly unique.
“We have a spectacular Federal-inspired townhouse in Brown Square,” Hunter said, “with three floors of opulent interiors decorated professionally by Terrence Gleason of Greenery Designs. That’s a very unusual one we have on the tour.”
Another is known as the “Treehouse,” a uniquely designed home by Andrew Sidford Architects built into a hill overlooking the Artichoke and serving as the perfect showcase Christmas home.
“In the family room it has a floating fireplace made out of a 3,000-pound slab of granite from the Rockport quarry,” said Griffin.
During this year’s tour on Saturday from 10 a.m. to 4 p.m., guests and holiday enthusiasts will be welcome to step inside 11 local homes that represent a variety of architectural styles.
Beginning at the Custom House Maritime Museum and a trio of waterfront homes that offer a “jeweled” vision of Joppa Flats and Newburyport’s picturesque marshland, guests can then travel at their own pace from the river up to High Street, stopping along the way to visit some of the South End’s finest Federalist homes.
From there, they will be welcomed into the grand homes built nearly 200 years ago by the city’s sea captains, into a home overlooking Brown Square, and several others that represent Newburyport’s culture and history.
“Christmas is something we do big every year,” said Meg Wiley, whose Georgian Federalist home on High Street is among the tour stops.
A holiday enthusiast, Wiley always creates a seasonal showplace for her family, with special placement given to a collection of Santa Claus figures she’s been collecting since she was 20 years old. This year, however, she wanted to go a step further to give guests of the tours something to remember.
“I always decorate huge, but once we decided to do this, because we wanted people to really be wowed by the tour, we hired a floral designer, Jan Lorrey,” Wiley said. “Once you decide to do this, you want to share the house and all it can be with the people that come.”
The result, she said, is a home decorated throughout with fresh, natural holiday boughs of green and natural touches that accentuate all her favorite holiday collections, but with some added twinkling lights that work perfectly with the early 19th century home decor.
“These are decorations that have been collected since I was a baby,” Wiley said. “They are a reflection of the years.”
Deborah Byrnes, of Old Point Road on Plum Island, is offering up her home to the tour to showcase the kind of magic one can create in a newer, more modern home. Built atop steel pillars in the style of many island homes, with 22-foot-high ceilings and plenty of light, Byrnes’ home works a different holiday angle built around the beach and her favorite view of the marsh. She has aimed to create a holiday home that feels “yummy and comfortable.”
“It’s very fresh,” Byrnes said. “White becomes fresh and fresh becomes sparkly. When you really look at the sand, and when you look at real nature, there are sparkles in nature. That’s what the house is — it’s sort of glam plus nature experience.”
A more traditional experience awaits at the home of Anne Tuthill at 1 High Road in Newbury, directly across from Wiley’s home. According to Tuthill, who has been a regular guest at the Holiday House Tour for 20 years, her home has been transformed in the spirit of a beloved holiday classic.
“What we did for the tour is highlight the Nutcracker Ballet,” Tuthill said.
There’s a room decked out in the style of the Party Scene and a room that doubles as a dancer’s dressing room complete with a folding screen draped with costumes and tutus.
“Our dining room is done over as the Kingdom of Sweets,” Tuthill said. It boasts a three-tiered cake and stemware glasses overflowing with candy. “In the kitchen, we have a gingerbread house as a nod to Mother Ginger. It actually was created by three generations and it shows. It’s not all perfect, but it’s really fun.”
IF YOU GO What: Holiday House Tour When: Saturday, 10 a.m. to 4 p.m. Where: 11 homes throughout the city How: Tickets can be purchased to the event in advance by calling 978-462-8681, or through the Custom House Museum gift shop for $23 for the general public. On the day of the tour, tickets will be available for $28 at the Custom House Maritime Museum, 25 Water St., Newburyport. More: The Massachusetts Audubon Society's Joppa Flats Education Center will serve cider and doughnuts throughout the tour. Coffee and chowder, compliments of Starbucks and Starboard Galley, will also be available at the museum from 11 a.m. to 2 p.m. during the annual silent wreath auction. WREATHS AND ORNAMENTS AUCTION In addition to viewing homes, House Tour participants can also bid on handmade, one-of-a-kind wreaths that are part of this year's Silent Auction. There are approximately 24 wreaths on the auction block this year, decorated by local artists and designers, and a handful of museum patrons whose green thumbs have spurred wreath bidding wars in the past. "There's something for everyone -- whether contemporary or a wreath made from driftwood," said Kristin Hunter, co-chairwoman of the Holiday House Tour. This year's array of green designs, made by members of area garden clubs or by local businesses, offer traditional pieces that feature Colonial-style, fruit-adorned wreaths, a favorite from Cebula Designs, and a number of wreaths with a maritime theme, which tend to do very well every year at the auction. "One is made from a mast ring," Hunter said. "That's one of the ones we sell that draws the most competition." And this year, said tour co-chairwoman Nancy Griffin, a new custom-made ornament auction is being held simultaneous to the wreath auction, adding to the excitement. "It's a new project this year," Griffin said. "They're just getting this off the ground and I think next year there will be many, many more." The Silent Auction has been ongoing at the Custom House since Thanksgiving, and will end at 5 p.m. Saturday after everyone has had a chance to view the wreaths and ornaments and place their bids.