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By Keith Spencer

SALEM – The holiday spirit was alive and well as the 36th Annual Christmas in Salem Holiday House Tour returned to the McIntire District earlier this month. The celebration revisited one of Salem’s grandest neighborhoods through the lens of “The Twelve Days of Christmas” and a dozen stops spanning 300 years of architectural and local history. 

“These are some of the most beautiful streets in America,” said president Jennifer Firth of Historic Salem, the organization behind the yearly tradition. “Our visitors are stepping into magnificent homes and spaces, each decorated splendidly, and it’s all in support of historic preservation in our community.” 

“What I like the most is the opportunity to get to know more and more people, to make new friends, and share them with others.”  – Humberto Bryant-Christmas in Salem Volunteer

The Christmas in Salem House Tour has visited a different neighborhood since its inception in 1979, offering a glimpse into private homes and sometimes public spaces that have been professionally adorned by local florists, designers, and even some homeowners. 

This year’s tour took guests to the McIntire National Historic District to explore a series of unique histories and architectural tales including both private homes and several historic properties. The properties were examples of the Federal, Georgia, and Colonial Revival style, and were either devised or influenced by renowned architect Samuel McIntire.

The program requires support and a lot of it. More than 250 volunteers worked as guides this year alongside 30 house captains and a host of other volunteers who offered their varied talents and services to make the event not only happen, but also a great experience from the moment you pick up your map and booklet to the last stop you visit on the tour.

“We rely almost solely on volunteers,” explained Simeen Brown, a volunteer coordinator for Christmas in Salem. “So many contribute their time and talents including not only our guides and captains, but also musicians who add a great deal to the experience, historians and artists, graphic design and layout volunteers, and even a group of dancers which was a real treat.”

Stefanie Howlett, another Christmas in Salem Committee volunteer, agreed with nothing but praise for her experience and involvement over the last few years.

“Working with Simeen and the rest of the talented committee has been both a blast and a learning experience,” Howlett gushed. “It’s been a fabulous way for me to get involved in the community, and I’ve met so many wonderful people along the way. I’m proud to say I live in Salem, and working on an event such as this only solidifies it.”

Each property has volunteer house captains who help coordinate and work with tour guides who must be knowledgeable about the decor, the home, and general Salem history. Their role goes beyond just passing information about the rooms in which they are stationed. They must also observe and coordinate the flow of guests, monitor the rooms to ensure safety and security, and continuously welcome guests with a smile and support. 

Humberto Bryant was one such volunteer who first joined the Christmas in Salem team after receiving an invite from a friend.

“I agreed to join the team two years ago, and it has been a fun ride,” Humberto said. “What I like the most is the opportunity to get to know more and more people, to make new friends, and share them with others.”

Over a dozen homeowners graciously opened their sanctuaries to the public, a rare occasion for nearly all of the private homes featured. While some homeowners prefer to stay offsite during tour hours, others remained on location and volunteered to offer further insight into how they host the holidays and their historic homestead. 

“It can be nerve-wracking to open your home to so many people,” said homeowner William Raye who resides in the Deacon Stone House on Chestnut Street, “but the reaction and respect from visitors and volunteers has been nothing short of amazing.” 

Raye served as his own house captain alongside his partner Edward Jacobs. They both decorated the home with some help from Tiffanys, and it was undoubtedly a standout on the tour. The cornerstone, historic property was once the home of wealthy, Unitarian minister John Stone. It also served as “The Studio” during the late nineteenth century Salem art scene where Philip Little and Frank Benson, two prominent forces in the American Impressionist movement, created a myriad of works.

“The homeowners are our most valuable volunteers,” Brown added. “Without homes to walk through, there would not be a tour. We are incredibly grateful to the homeowners and public spaces that have been willing to share with us throughout the 36 years that Christmas in Salem has been going strong. We could not do it without them.”

Several organizations worked alongside Historic Salem to bolster the event with public homes and spaces that also serve as exemplary historic preservations in the district. The Peabody Essex Museum opened the doors to the Ropes Mansion and Historic New England welcomed visitors to the Phillips House. Hamilton Hall and The Witch House are also two popular properties and Salem destinations included on this year’s tour.

The weekend also boasted a variety of special events, including a mini food tour with Karen Scalia of Salem Food Tours, wine tastings at Salem Wine Imports, a lecture from Salem’s “official historian” Jim McAllister, and the Salem Garden Club boutique where visitors could purchase uniquely decorate wreaths and arrangements. The event also featured various local musicians throughout the weekend as well as “nine ladies dancing” at Hamilton Hall courtesy of the Commonwealth Vintage Dancers.

“We are always looking for people willing to be on the committee, help out as guides, and to play music for us,” Brown reminded. “We would love to be able to have a soundtrack in more homes and in more time slots, and only add bigger and better things. It all comes down to our volunteers who truly make this event happen.”

All of the proceeds raised support historic preservation in Salem and furthering the mission and efforts of Historic Salem. The organization also recently hosted a sold-out symposium celebrating the 50th anniversary of Ada Louis Huxtable’s 1965 article that saved much of downtown Salem from demolition.

For more information about Historic Salem or if you would like to learn how you can volunteer, visit www.historicsalem.org or e-mail info@historicsalem.org.