With an abundance of festive cheer set against a landscape of snow-laden firs, Vermont has all the charm of the classic American Christmas movies, but dig a little deeper and you’ll discover a state like no other in the USA
Words ORLA THOMAS
Photographs MARK READ
Wrapped in down jackets and woolly hats, the crowd gathered for the parade lets out a hoot of laughter as the inaugural performer trots into view. A Shetland pony with a Rudolph nose and antlers fixed to her harness, she moves skittishly down Woodstock’s main street. She is led on reins past shop windows strewn with baubles and fairy lights, and red-brick houses with lacquered front doors hung with wreaths of holly. Also among the seasonal cavalry are mighty shire horses towing cartloads of elves, girls dressed as Christmas trees perched on ponies, and older ladies riding side-saddle in full skirts and fake-fur hand muffs. Weaving among them on rollerblades is a woman wearing a top hat, who shovels up the occasional pile of manure left in the merry conga’s wake.
The parade is the highpoint of Woodstock’s annual Wassail weekend, and, although the light is fading fast, the crowd’s exuberance is slow to dissipate. Seeking respite from below-zero temperatures, some retreat into the historic Woodstock Inn for cups of hot cider and mulled wine. I gather with others around a huge bonfire that has been lit on the green. A father and daughter, both wearing Victorian-inspired costumes, stand warming their hands at the blaze. “The key to Vermont winters is to embrace them,” says Rick Read, who’s from the nearby town of Hartland.
Fourteen-year-old Sydney, looking like Red Riding Hood in her bright coat, nods earnestly in agreement. “You have to go into them with a lot of spirit and determination,” she says. “And there’s so much spirit here at Christmas! A real sense of community. It’s fun to get dressed up and be a part of that.”
Woodstock’s Wassail may be old in style, but it’s an enjoyable anachronism. First celebrated here in the 1980s, this winter tradition has its roots in the pagan festivities of the mother country. Stemming from the old English waes hael (‘be in good health’), medieval wassailing saw merry bands of revellers moving from house to house singing as they partook in boozy hospitality. Carolling is still part of the event – as darkness descends, members of the local Rotary Club light paper-bag lanterns and hand out song sheets. I join in with jolly rounds of Silent night and We wish you a merry Christmas. Locals rosy-faced from the fire collapse into giggles when we fumble over words. Like them, I pore over the lyrics with light from a smartphone, but there is still something primal in the ritual, gathering to sing around the flames.
The wassail tradition of calling on your neighbours also has its modern equivalent, in Woodstock’s Holiday House Tour. Every year, various locals agree to open their doors so visitors can cast their eyes over homes decked out in their Christmas finery. The first house on the route belongs to Michael Cassidy and Ron Garwood, who’ve been together for 18 years, but more recently married and moved to Woodstock. Within this palace of December kitsch, their joy in the season is apparent in every room. On the breakfast bar sits a Vermont town in miniature, complete with carollers and fake snow. Baubles and candy canes engulf their ceiling-height tree, a toy train circling at its base, while an army of nutcracker soldiers obscures a windowsill.
“This is minimal for us!” says Michael, as he stands near the hearth, smoothing the pendulous ears of the couple’s basset hound. “My first-ever job was as a tree trimmer and I have always loved making Christmas magical. It’s so much fun – every year it takes me back to being a little kid again.” Husband Ron appears from the kitchen, carrying a jug of Bloody Mary. “We always hoped to retire to Vermont,” he adds. “It’s so charming, with the look of a Norman Rockwell painting. For a mostly rural state, Vermont is unusually liberal. It is the only one with a socialist senator, Bernie Sanders, and was one of the first to legalise same-sex unions. “Woodstock seems to be a very open and accepting place,” says Michael. “We certainly feel welcome here.”
Ron and Michael’s easy hospitality is unbeaten elsewhere on the tour, largely because many other participating houses seem to be second homes, their owners not in town. Woodstock’s buildings are so uniformly pristine that walking among them is like strolling through a Hollywood set, a movie-standard simulacrum of New England life. Historic clapboard properties feature picket fences whiter than the snow, behind which ruddy-cheeked children frolic under new falling flakes. Inside, high-end fixtures and fittings – marble worktops, chestnut kitchen islands, floor-to-ceiling picture windows – speak of money and good taste. Christmas adornments are equally charming: colour-pop fireplace stockings and origami birds, or a tree adorned with clouds of baby’s breath.