Person in red jacket walking down a snowy Salem street

Christmas in Salem

by Anne Sterling

When Destination Salem asked me to write about a favorite Salem event, the annual Christmas in Salem House Tour immediately sprang to mind. My memory draws me back to my first tour in December of 2003, when Salem was pummeled by a powerful snowstorm that lasted three days and postponed the second day of the tour.

Being a December baby, I was delighted that the storm had closed roads, giving us good reason to hike thru snowdrifts, hoping the Tour houses would be open. Each house was a haven filled with fragrant pine boughs, carved wood, and gleaming mahogany tables reflecting sparkling chandeliers and antique silver. The Tour houses, while magnificent, are also family homes with cherished homemade ornaments on towering decorated trees and children’s drawings which contrast with pricey art and silver framed photos.

Did I mention that I am congenitally nosey and love to get the inside track on other people’s living quarters? Did I mention the squeals of appreciation I emit when I find the beautiful renovated kitchens that are the heart of any home. This is where historic homeowners get to indulge in trendy granite counters, kitchen islands, and modern appliances, all while carefully preserving historic fireplaces, and giant black iron ranges spiffed up with shiny chrome. After drinking in the sights, we hurried out the back doors, marching through the deep snow to find the next Christmas in Salem sign blowing in the gale.

Inevitably, the green monster of jealousy reared its head while I toured these impossibly beautiful homes. But I was not doing so badly myself. I was experiencing the early days of a love story with my husband — a teacher who was about to receive several snow days off as a result of the 30-plus inches of snow-We couldn’t have been happier!

Professionally, I was just coming off several years as a “road warrior” that had me traveling the world as a tour manager for various local and national group travel companies. I know, I know, “boo-hoo.” I endured months living in the Caribbean, in Asia, in Europe, but extensive traveling can be lonely and I had not lived a settled life in a community for too many years. I missed family gatherings and weddings, and mourned the resulting broken relationships while cheering from the sideline as my friends circle married and started families. One memorable Christmas day was spent in the San Juan, Puerto Rico airport where I hustled to find lodging for 250 angry charter passengers who had missed their connecting flight to St. Thomas.

Moving to Salem in the spring of 2004 brought with it the very first flowering of community life I had felt in a long time. Seeing neighbors plant gardens, kids riding trikes, discovering downtown Salem, and putting down roots was incredibly satisfying to me after years of wandering. I secretly developed the habit of counting on my fingers the number of times a day I interacted with people I knew. As I cherished each random encounter with a Salemite, I purposefully nurtured my realm of potential friendships by volunteering — which brings me back to Christmas in Salem.

I was thrilled when my new friends in the neighborhood asked me to join their pre-tour brunches and help out as a house guide. Like hundreds of Salemites through the decades, I stood in hallways and kitchens, doorsteps and driveways, welcoming droves of festive tour goers with pre-scripted tidbits about houses in Northfields, South Salem, Salem Common, and Juniper Point. I felt privileged to earn my stripes as part of the in-crowd who worked in the trenches, guided the masses, checked the boxes, and best of all, relaxed with after-glow parties of wine and cheese with my new friends.
This all culminated in a big way when I was asked by Historic Salem to chair their 75th anniversary gala celebration in the beautiful Hawthorne Hotel ballroom. We drew inspiration from a previous Salem Ports-of-Call Christmas in Salem tour and organized an Asian-inspired menu and costume themed event. For me, it was a “This Is Us” moment.

I was, and am, part of a merry band of eccentrics hell-bent on preserving Salem’s historic neighborhoods, known to be the finest example of Federal era architecture in the country. After 40 years, Christmas in Salem has grown into a juggernaut that includes a Garden Club boutique, restaurant and hotel deals, music and choral interludes, food tours, history lectures, art and jewelry shows which have been estimated to contribute $70,000 annually to the downtown economy.

As sunset darkens the last tours on Sunday afternoon, exhausted tour guides and tour-goers head home; I imagine that we are all part of a living tableau of the song, “Silver Bells”:

“City Sidewalks, busy sidewalks, dressed in holiday style
In the air there’s a feeling of Christmas
Children laughing, people passing, meeting smile after smile…”

My gypsy soul has finally turned from the thrill of wanderlust to the warm glow of greeting neighbors and I still cherish every a smile returned as we head into winter darkness together.

A major source of funding for Historic Salem, Inc. this year’s Christmas in Salem house tour will operate virtually beginning on December 4th and will be online for the whole month. Please take our virtual tour and consider buying a ticket as a gift for a friend, and a gift to preserve Salem at https://christmasinsalem.org/

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Anne Sterling grew up in Southern NH where she survived “nun-school” and being a teen-aged hippy before moving to Boston and traveling the world as a tour guide. Eventually she clipped her own wings and returned to school for a Master’s degree in Education. Anne used to live happily in Salem with her husband Arthur until they acquired a cat named Henry.

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