MYSTIC, Conn. -- Evergreen trees top the masts of the tall ships along the Mystic River, announcing the vessels will be in port for the holidays.
Inside the town church, residents rehearse the Christmas pageant, while the less-religious celebrate down the street at the tavern. At Mystic Seaport, it's Christmas Eve, 1876. Visitors to the maritime museum are invited to step back 125 years into a 19th-century coastal Christmas.
Mystic Seaport is a 17-acre re-creation of a whaling-era New England coastal town. It's open year-round with a working shipyard, village, exhibits and tall ships. At night in December, it's all visible by lantern light.
The Lantern Light tours are as much a moving play as a tour of the seaport. Groups of 16 travel by horse-drawn carriage and by foot around the village as a lantern-carrying character from the town tells a story.
Always 1876 holiday
The story lines change from year to year -- the tours have been running for more than two decades -- but the date is always Dec. 24, 1876.
This year, visitors learn that the Beckwith family has fallen on hard times and must sell their house at auction and that a whaling ship is reported to have sunk with a local woman on board.
At the beginning of the tour, a sailor appears and asks the tour group to deliver a letter to Mr. Beckwith. The group goes from place to place, looking for Mr. Beckwith and being drawn into Christmas Eve songs and dances at the tavern, the church, private homes and aboard whaling ships.
It's a fine line between education and entertainment," said Christopher Dobbs, director of the tours. "We really try to blend the two."
Small details tell of life in Victorian America. A Christmas tree at the Beckwiths' is decorated with Christmas cards, an early sign of commercialization. A glass pickle is hidden on the tree -- tradition says that the first child to spot it will receive an extra present. A sponge on a stick sits in a bucket near the tree to douse the candles on the evergreen.
The tree in the church is dotted with tiny American flags and a large flag hangs behind it to commemorate the country's centennial, a major event at the time. Though the flags have just 45 stars, the display of patriotism seems current.
"It hits home for visitors more this year than ever," says Sara Fisher, productions coordinator.
Last year, the Seaport had another case of uncanny timing with the exhibit, Fisher says. In December of 1876, the presidential election was unresolved between New York governor Samuel Tilden and Rutherford B. Hayes. With the standoff between Gore and Bush fresh in the visitors, minds, the Tilden-Rutherford race was a highlight of the tour.
Mystic Seaport's other annual holiday event is a community carol sing held the Sunday before Christmas. Several thousand people take advantage of the free admission -- the only day of the year the museum doesn't charge -- and spend the afternoon singing carols.
Further exploration of sea life -- this time the creatures that live there -- can be done at the Mystic Aquarium. Just down the road from the Seaport, the popular aquarium is home to beluga whales and four new walruses.
Other sites to visit
The aquarium is also home to Titanic explorer Robert Ballard's institute, and currently features a new exhibit on the search for evidence of the biblical Great Flood in the time of Noah, called "Noah's Flood & Ancient Shipwrecks."
The Aquarium and the pathways of nearby Olde Mystick Village, a group of 60 shops, will be lined with thousands of luminaries Dec. 14.
Mystic offers many places to eat, shop and stay while visiting the area's attractions. The town, which runs along both sides of the Mystic River, is dotted with white clapboard homes from the 1800s with big porches and picket fences.
The main downtown street is bordered on one side by a drawbridge and a white-steepled church on the other. In between are galleries and restaurants.
In the window of Mystic Sweets and Ice Cream Shoppe, three sugarplum fairies dance and real sugarplums are sold inside in dainty white and gold boxes.