In my circuitous RVing fashion, I happened on to the Biltmore Mansion in Ashville, North Carolina, just in time for its first Christmas Candlelight Evening of the season. It is America’s largest private residence with 255 rooms, built by George Washington Vanderbilt and opened for the first time on Christmas in 1895. It had what few did in those days—indoor plumbing, refrigeration and electric lights.
Each room had one or two decorated Christmas trees in different themes. Victorian dolls and wooden horses peered from underneath. It was like walking through The Nutcracker, but it didn’t exactly remind me of past Christmases as a child. Three cabins like the one I was born in would have fit nicely into any room, perhaps even under the tree.
The library had hundreds of books and the fireplace was enormous. It would have been a privilege to live in just that room. Musicians played piccolo and piano, all perfectly attuned to each other. We were all too awed with the beautiful music to speak. On the way out of the room, I heard a well-furred dowager say to her companion, “It reminds me of the Sistine Chapel…of course it’s much larger than this.” (A few years later I stood in the Sistine Chapel—I didn’t see the resemblance.)
I was impressed with the basement’s lack of cobwebs looping from beam to beam, as they had in mine. A bowling alley and heated swimming pool lived there, along with magnificent paintings that graced the walls of the many rooms.
Three fast-paced hours later, music accompanied me as I was ushered out of this magical mansion. Luminaries lined my path and lights twinkled in the bushes. It was Disney magic wrapped in a mild North Carolina night.
A Williamsburg Christmas
Accompanied by my youngest daughter, Tracey, we entered the historic area of Williamsburg, Virginia, crossing the time zone into the 18th Century, and into the territory of our ancestors. They were dressed in homespun, home-dyed, and home-sewn clothes, “quaint” by our standards. Here, we were the ones wearing “funny” clothes. The cobbler was busy mending old shoes and making new ones. Beer, cider, rum, salted fish and meat would eventually find its way into the cooper’s barrels. The aroma of hot gingerbread wafted through the air as we washed the gingerbread down with hot spicy cider.
Horses jingled their way along dusty streets, pulling freight wagons and carriages. We visited the House of Burgesses to hear Patrick Henry shock his peers with the fire of his arguments—the beginning of our nation’s freedom.
The vegetable gardens of the Governor’s Palace were terraced and well kept. We wandered by the smokehouse and the dairy house, all part of the hundred or so buildings of this 18th Century living museum. Christmas carols and the fife and drum corps could be heard throughout the day as could the town crier announcing the local news.
Doorways and windows were decorated with intertwined pine roping and wreaths made with fresh pine and cones, apples, lemons and other natural materials. Christmas lights had not yet been invented.
It is Christmas Eve and time for the Yuletide Feast at the Williamsburg Lodge. We sip hot spiced wine until we are seated for a sumptuous feast of smoked brook trout with claret sauce, cheddar cheese soup, prime rib, Swiss stuffed potatoes, salad, chocolate mousse and yuletide cookies, all served attentively, but not necessarily hot, by waiters of the period. The courses are interspersed with the antics of the Madrigal Singers who enfold us in their entertainment.
Christmas Day arrives and we attend the Williamsburg Presbyterian Church. The reverend stops our singing and says, “During the first Christmas, there were camels. Follow my lead.” We sing the last stanza of “We Three Kings of Orient Are,” undulating with the music as though we are riding camels in search of the Christ Child. We are amused. We were strangers on this Christmas morning, but the ice is broken and we smile and walk back into the sunshine of the 20th Century, strangers no more.
In l992, I returned for Christmas with family and friends for the first time since going on the road. Looking forward to being a part of the fold again, I volunteered to be in the “Living Nativity.” Did I mention this was Michigan in December? It was so cold the sheep were looking for wool coats to wear over their wool coats and only a few hardy souls showed up each half hour. I played both a wise man and an angel (not at the same time). Never has an angel been so well padded. Thereafter, my wheels took me to Christmas in warmer climes.
One year our family visited friends who lived on the Intracoastal Waterway in Ft. Lauderdale, Florida. A contest encouraged owners of boats and homes to the ultimate in decorating, and they could do it without risking life and limb wallowing in two feet of snow or worrying if the winter winds would blow out the luminaires. Yachts and cabin cruisers were decorated from stem to stern. They slid through the canals playing Christmas Carols, with those aboard waving to those whose houses were decorated from step to stoop.
Our kids found it a bit strange to have warm weather and palm trees instead of maple trees and snow, but then again there probably weren’t too many maple trees or much snow in Bethlehem.
I was convinced Santa’s magic dust had reduced me to elf size in Nashville, Indiana, the “Village of 100,000 Lights.” Lights outlined everything, and holiday music played in the background. It was as though I were walking through a gingerbread village on someone’s hall table.
One year I attended the Cowboy Christmas Poetry Gathering in Wickenburg, Arizona. As they recited what they had written, it was soon forgotten that these weatherworn cowboys (and cowgirls) were perched on tall stools on a makeshift stage. The cool of a high meadow night crept into the room along with the fragrance of coffee brewing over a campfire. The words came from the depths of their souls. It might have been like that for the shepherds on the first Christmas, alone with the animals and the stars.
Leavenworth, Washington, provided an extra touch of magic at “The Christmas Lighting.” Picture a magnificent animated greeting card decorated in evergreen ropes and velvet ribbons. Familiar carols floated through the frigid mountain air, along with the fragrance of chestnuts roasting on open fires. Children squealed as they slid down the hill on sleds. Sleigh bells jingled when shop doors opened, and Scrooge walked the bricks with Mr. and Mrs. Santa Claus. Jack Frost nipped a few noses. Prayers were given and the crowd sang “Silent Night.” Suddenly the audience was silenced in common awe as the lights lit in unison. It was like being transported into a magical gingerbread village where every tree and every building was outlined with tiny lights. Cheers filled the night. The Christmas holiday had begun.
As you RV across the country, I hope you are taking part in the fun local Christmas activities. I wish you a “Wow!” Christmas season. God Bless.
Sharlene Minshall’s first novel, Winter in the Wilderness, (e-book and hard cover) and the fourth edition of RVing Alaska and Canada are available through Amazon.com.Research Campgrounds, Plan RV Safe Routes & Turn your phone into an RV GPS.
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