Greater Boston is comprised of many suburbs that were originally Colonial towns out in the country. As a result, much of the metropolitan area today retains a village feel in addition to its cosmopolitan chic.
Each town – or, in many cases, now city – is different, however subtly.
Let me illustrate with Watertown, where my choir rehearses.
It’s on the Charles River, which once powered its paper mills and other factories. Today the river has lovely parks and pathways, as well as crewing teams practicing out on the water in season.
The impressive Arsenal produced military armaments from 1816 through World War II. Today it’s a shopping district, and its restored antebellum commander’s mansion is a kind of museum.
Settled in 1630, Watertown soon became the seat of the Whitney family of invention, investment, and horse-breeding fame.
It’s largely overshadowed by neighboring Cambridge and the Harvard crowd. The famed Mount Vernon Cemetery, the first garden style burying ground in America, 1831, is usually thought of as being in Cambridge, when it fact it lies mostly in Watertown, with a who’s who of famous Americans buried in its rolling grounds.
Watertown has a wide ethnic range of residents, mostly working class or professionals.
The Armenian Library and Museum of America is well worth visiting for exhibits that acknowledge many genocides beyond their own. Watertown is the third largest center of the Armenian diaspora in the United States, surpassed by only two cities in California.
When it comes to cheap eats, I think it definitely beats hipper Cambridge. Some of the best Chinese I’ve ever had was in a modest storefront in Watertown Square, and I’m really sold on the Iranian takeout just up the street. But we also like Wild Willy’s.
The Perkins School for the Blind, founded in 1829, is the oldest such institution in the U.S. and is world famous. It manufactures its own machine to record text in braille. It moved to Watertown in 1912.
I really like the public library, which even has its own coffee shop.
The Gore Place is an opulent summer home built by a man who a fortune in speculating in Revolutionary War debt.
Apart from a short spur to the Portsmouth Naval Shipyard, all of the railroad traffic to and from Maine and the rest of the United States runs through Dover. (I’m not sure how much, if any, goes through Canada.)
When we first moved into the house, our younger one started complaining about all the train noises in the night as sand and gravel moved to Boston’s Big Dig construction.
More recently, one my my regrets about the Covid shutdown has been that a number of Amtrak trips I’d hoped to take – to museums and the Boston Symphony’s Friday matinee concerts, especially – instead got scrubbed. And since the Amtrak station was in walking distance of our house, I loved joking about walking to Boston. Ha-ha.
On the other hand, it can be annoying when you get stuck at a railroad crossing downtown while a long freight train passes. I usually lose count somewhere around 120 cars.
Here’s one I managed to shoot from the Oak Street bridge as it waited for the all-clear to continue rolling. Rail traffic, I’ve heard, doesn’t go north-south but rather east-west. Well, Portland’s north of us and Boston’s south. Make of it what you will.
My wife mentioned that she’s seeing a lot of deals from Amtrak, and that had me thinking how overdue I am for a trip on the Downeaster to Boston or the other way up to Portland, Maine, or beyond. As a senior, I even get to ride at half-price.
Of course, Covid-19 came into the picture, and I started flashing through the factors.
If the train’s not crowded, I’d have plenty of social distance. I could also carry hand sanitizer and even wear my colorful homemade mask to reduce risk of exposure.
I’ve been wanting to go to a Boston Symphony concert, finally see their new music director in action, but then I paused, realizing all of those concerts have been cancelled.
My considerations moved on to a visit at Harvard’s famed Fogg art museum, which had reopened after extensive renovations. Well, reopened is the wrong word. For the time being, it’s closed again. Hope the renovations hold.
Ditto, too, for a fine meal, maybe even in the North End’s Little Italy a few blocks from North Station. Forget that during the coronavirus shutdowns.
So it looks like that getaway is off, maybe till autumn? Or sometime next year?
During its first 200 years, Boston Puritanically refused to acknowledge Christmas as a special day of the year. The legislature actually banned observances in 1659, and December 25 was a school day for long afterward. As many Yankees stalwartly and proudly noted in their journals, the 25th was simply “an ordinary day.” You could be fined for any outward show of holiday festivities, though there seems to be no evidence that actually happened. Still, nowhere in the Bible is the date set, and, frankly, the faithful did note that so many of its customs had blatantly pagan origins. Christmas in Massachusetts didn’t become a public holiday until 1856.
Slowly, though, things have changed, and Christmas in New England has become something of an ideal setting. And so, with its many fine live cultural performances, Boston is now considered a prime destination at this time of year, especially when snow heightens the effect.
Here are ten events to take in.
Boston Pops. Launched by Arthur Fiedler in 1973, the orchestra’s holiday shows now get 45 performances in Symphony Hall in less than four weeks. It’s a joyous blend of Santa and sacred.
Boston Ballet. While nearly every dance company in America does something with Tchaikovsky’s “Nutcracker” – it is, after all, a prime source of income – the Boston Ballet company delivers one of the nation’s most sumptuous productions, with 34 performances at the Opera House beginning at the end of November.
Handel and Haydn Society. The American premiere of Messiah was given by this organization in 1818, and over the years the piece has become an annual staple. Even though the work was intended as an Easter observance, it has universally shifted to Advent season. The H&H has evolved into a leading early music ensemble, but it’s by no means the only one in town. This highly acclaimed annual performances of the masterpiece has some sterling competition.
Speaking of early music. Vocal groups like Boston Camerata and Blue Heron come up with holiday rarities. And the city is rife with fine choral ensembles digging into the musical archives to add to the listener’s discoveries.
The Revels. Across the Charles River in Cambridge, the Boston Revels’ colorful Christmas production fills the Shakespearean Globe-inspired Sanders Theater at Harvard with 18 family-oriented performances. Founded in 1970, each year now features a special focus – this year, it’s Depression-era America, including blues and bluegrass; last year was Norway; the year before, Renaissance Venice. The celebratory event blends storytelling, acting, dancing, musical soloists, children’s and adult choruses that move as families across the set, plus traditional fare including singalongs, Morris dancers, sword dancers, a mummer’s play, and the intermission line dance that takes the audience from their seats into the marble lobby. It’s more of a secular solstice celebration, but when you’re dealing with folkways like this, Christmas is inescapable.
Theater. It’s not all Charles Dickens, though there’s plenty of that around. The professional Huntington and American Repertory Theater companies, especially, can be counted on for original fare.
Lessons and Carols. Beantown is an Episcopal stronghold, and Vaughan Williams’ setting of scripture and carols has earned its following. Could anywhere be more spectacular for this touch of Edwardian Yuletide than, say, Trinity Church on Copley Square or the Church of the Nativity just down the street?
Boston Baroque. A more recent tradition is this orchestra’s two New Year’s concerts – one the evening of the 31st, the other on the following afternoon – both in Harvard’s Sanders Theater. A wonderful blend of formal and informal to welcome the annual transition.
Pontine Theater. To the north, closer to where I live, a two-person team can be counted to put on an original show based on Victorian-era New England stories. They create and make their own sets, puppets, and costumes in addition to writing the script. It’s unique to Portsmouth, New Hampshire, but still in the Boston orb.
The Nubble Light. A bit further up the road, the iconic lighthouse at Cape Neddick in York, Maine, is outlined in strings of light. Since the lighthouse sits on a small island just offshore, it’s already widely photographed – one of the top two or three I see in published pictures. But this time of year, the effect from sunset on is breathtaking. At Long Sands around the corner, surfers in wetsuits are likely riding the waves. It’s hardly befitting the season, but I thought I’d mention it anyway … just in case you’re driving up.
And that’s before we getting to ice skating or hockey, for those looking for something more active.