Holiday Destinations: New Bern palace preserves grand colonial Christmas

mquillin@newsobserver.comDecember 1, 2013 

  • If you go:

    “Seasons of Delight: A Candlelight Masquerade” at Tryon Palace in New Bern is Dec. 14 and Dec. 21, 5 p.m. to 9 p.m. each night. Tickets can be purchased at the Tryon Palace ticket desk in the N.C. History Center, 529 S. Front Street, online at or by phone, 252-639-3524. Tickets are $20 for adults and $10 for students through grade 12. Attendance is limited to 1,300 people each night.

    The palace, decorated for the holidays, is open for regular tours Monday through Saturday from 9 a.m. to 5 p.m. and Sunday 12 p.m. to 5 p.m. A one-day pass is $20 for adults and $10 for students in grades one-12. Group rates also are available.

    New Bern is about 115 miles southeast of Raleigh, off U.S. 70.

Editor’s note: This story introduces an occasional series on Holiday Destinations in North Carolina — places where a day’s drive or an overnight trip can provide a special taste of the season.

Winter, spring, summer and fall will converge into one season – the Christmas season – this year at Tryon Palace.

Not everyone can make it to New Bern four times a year to see what was the grandest public building in the colonies when it was first completed in 1770. But anyone can get a glimpse during this holiday celebration of the subtle ways the palace changes from one season to the next. The fruits and flora entwined in the wreaths on the palace gates, the foods on the dining room table, the fabric of the costumes that palace interpreters will wear to this year’s two candlelight masquerade balls – all will evoke what’s special about each of the four seasons.

As palace staff might have done in the time of Gov. William Tryon, for whom the home was built, today’s palace workers reach for what is locally available throughout the year as they dress the state historic site for the public.

“I take my inspiration from nature,” said Sadaf Hassan, the designer hired to execute this year’s Christmas theme, “Seasons of Delight.”

Hassan’s task was to bring the spirit of the holidays to the house and grounds, and to use four rooms of the home to highlight one season each. Visitors can see – and smell – the decorations during tours of the house throughout the holidays, or they can enjoy a total transformation of the house and grounds during the masquerade balls on Dec.14 and Dec.21.

Harvest of decorations

Hassan got her assignment just 10 weeks ago, long after spring tulips and summer crape myrtles had bloomed on the palace grounds, so silk and dried blossoms will substitute for fresh-cut greenery in some arrangements. But there was still time to gather wheat chaff and moss, and snip grapevines, boxwood, fir and magnolia, as well as pluck rosemary from the kitchen garden and purchase apples, lemons, oranges and pomegranates.

Volunteers and staff have helped to craft the decorations, including a glittery dogwood branch in the dining room with hand-painted blooms and realistic “foods” such as cannoli and aspic.

“We couldn’t do this without the volunteers,” Hassan said. “It’s a team effort.”

Hassan used nearly 600 yards of fabric, including deep red and spring green taffeta, to add drama to the displays, which were completed last week.

Dozens of yards more went into outfitting the costumed interpreters who will attend the masquerade balls. The normal staff of eight or so interpreters will swell to nearly 50 on those nights to play 18th-century partiers who have come to dine, dance and compete in parlor games.

Laura Rogers will dress them all. As the palace’s historical clothing coordinator, she’s responsible for designing and building clothes appropriate for the period the palace interprets. On the nights of the balls, it will be 1773, when Royal Gov. Josiah Martin and his wife, Elizabeth, lived in the elegant brick house that would burn down 25 years later.

Masquerade costumes

Rogers learned to sew from her mother as a young girl and educated herself on historical clothing design. She buys and modifies most of what the male interpreters wear. But she builds the women’s costumes using patterns she makes herself, or by draping the fabric and pinning it into the shape she wants – or sometimes by combining the two techniques.

Her most elaborate costumes for Seasons of Delight are those for the characters of the governor and his wife, who would have dressed up for the occasion. “Gov. Martin” will masquerade as a chevalier, in a black vest with 4,000 hand-sewn silver sequins, and “Mrs. Martin” will dress as an ice queen, in a white gown and petticoat.

Rogers and a volunteer, Judy Smith, were working in the palace costume shop last week on the Martins’ costumes and other pieces, surrounded by bins of aprons and kerchiefs, drawers full of beads and pearls, and bits of feather and fur. Rogers also had masks to finish and wigs to style.

Rogers has a deep knowledge of what materials went into producing the clothing items in their day. But working for a state-run historic site, she also knows how to pinch a penny by substituting polyester for silk when visitors won’t get a close look at a garment and, on one dress for the masquerade party, spray-painting a jade-and-gold harlequin pattern on the bodice instead of piecing it from separate bits of cloth.

Live entertainment

Some visitors who have attended past masquerade balls at the palace embraced the historical concept and put on period dress themselves. The palace is also bringing in costumed jugglers, acrobats and magicians for the candlelit balls, and a fife and drum corps will provide music, along with Jonkonnu dancers and performers commemorating an 1800s African-American holiday tradition.

Period clothing is a source of fascination to visitors, Rogers says. Most have never lived in a grand house with servants, and they can’t always imagine what life would have been like in pre-Revolutionary coastal North Carolina.

“But clothing is something everybody can identify with. They know what socks are.”

Getting the interpreters’ clothing ready for the holiday is an enjoyable process, Smith said as she helped to finish a costume last week. As the work comes to a close, she is as excited as the governor’s family would have been 240 years ago.

“It’s a lot to do,” Smith said, “but somehow we always manage to get it done.”

Quillin: 919-829-8929

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