This season, travel 90 minutes—and back in history several centuries—to Winston-Salem.
Old Salem is the antidote to a frenetic, fast-paced holiday. And a great place to take kids who may be shocked to discover that Colonial children had fun without Pokémon Go or an Xbox.
Beginning just before Thanksgiving, Old Salem, a living history district in Winston-Salem, is decorated—in an understated way—with greenery, garlands, and wreaths. (Blinking, colored lights were not part of Christmas celebrations circa 1800.) The Moravians who settled the area were a pious and exacting lot. They loved peace, sacred music—and keeping meticulous records. By hand, of course.
The Salem Tavern Museum, built in 1784, features traditional Christmas décor and demos on how people cooked centuries ago. Women had to grind their own spices by hand. You won’t find a “Mall Santa” here. Old Salem’s costume department created the fur-trimmed, red felt robe sported by Kris Kringle on “Saturdays with St. Nicholas,” beginning Nov. 26.
Paula Locklair, Old Salem’s vice president for education, says a holiday visit is “a fragrant, sensory experience.” You’re surrounded by the smell of fresh pine, ginger cakes, and spicy hot chocolate. Moravians were, in fact, among the first people to bake with chocolate. (The English only drank theirs.)
Enjoy lunch or dinner—by candlelight, of course—next door at The Tavern, circa 1816. It’s farm-to-fork (there was no other way in the 1800s), and servers are dressed in traditional Moravian garb. The village bakery, Winkler’s, still has an oven powered by firewood.
Moravians knitted, quilted, and painted the gifts they exchanged. Ask your kids how they’d like gilded walnuts or marbleized paper for Christmas.
At Old Salem’s Vogler House, built in 1840, watch artisans and tradesmen work. Potters, shoemakers, silversmiths, watchmakers, and more operate reproductions of the tools used in the 1800s.
Fun fact for Second Amendment fans: Old Salem claims the country’s oldest still-operational gunsmith. The Timothy Vogler Gunsmith Shop, built in 1831, makes rifles the way they did when America was young.
The city cigarettes built
Near Wake Forest University’s campus is Reynolda House, the family estate of tobacco tycoon R.J. Reynolds. In addition to the historic home, the formal gardens, grounds, and art museum are worth your time. Through Jan. 31, you can see “Grant Wood and the American Farm.”
Reynolda House is peaceful by candlelight, and you can see it that way on select dates in December. Candlelight tours feature stories of the Reynolds family holidays, period decorations, and holiday music played on the original Aeolian organ.
When you’re ready to leave the past behind and re-enter this century, stop in at the always-edgy Southeastern Center for Contemporary Art and see Dispatches (through Feb. 19), a compilation of artistic responses to the news, including the 2016 U.S. presidential election.
A chic stay
Winston-Salem is an easy day trip, but you may be tempted to stay the night. The newest lodging hot spot combines the best of old and new. The Cardinal, part of the chic and pet friendly Kimpton chain, is housed in the R.J. Reynolds Building downtown. The Art Deco wonder, built in 1929, is on the National Register of Historic Places.
Its gold leaf, marble, and burnished brass appointments recall a more formal era. The modern redo, with brilliant colors and whimsical touches, is glorious. If Old Salem lulled you into an unhurried, 18th-century state of mind, the hotel’s 2,000-square-foot rec room with a basketball court, bowling alley and adult-sized twisty slide will remind you it’s 2016.
Downtown Winston-Salem, while not as old as nearby Old Salem, retains its early 1900s charm. City leaders have preserved, rather than imploded, the past.
A taste of the Old South
Winston’s hottest new restaurant is part of the Cardinal. The Katharine Brasserie & Bar is a traditional French bistro that features classic Southern cooking. Executive Chef Ed Witt is planning a prix fixe, multicourse Thanksgiving feast.
Dewey’s Bakery has been a Winston-Salem tradition since 1930. Moravian cookies, with a hint of molasses and ginger, are thin wafers–nothing fancy. But new-fangled flavors, such as pumpkin spice, Meyer lemon, and toasted coconut, have been added to the lineup.
Dewey’s Moravian sugar cake, with pools of buttery brown sugar in the crevices, is for those who crave dessert for breakfast.
The craft beer craze has not bypassed the region: Foothills Brewing is just a short walk from The Kimpton. Also downtown is Sweet Potatoes restaurant. If you think macaroni and cheese can’t be improved, please try the version at this soul food restaurant. It’s made with yellow and white cheddar, blue cheese, and country ham. Collard green dip and a pork rind basket are fare you don’t find just anywhere.
The Moravians kept meticulous records. For instance, the entry in the Salem Diary on Dec. 25, 1816 reads: “Christmas Day. The weather was fine and an unusually large number attended the services in…our congregations, including many who do not belong to us.”
Those who did not belong surely found a hearty welcome that Christmas Day in Salem, N.C. People still do.