Thirty miles off the coast of Massachusetts, Nantucket is among New England’s loveliest and most exclusive summer hideaways, an idyll of 19th-century charm, sandy beaches, and seafaring lineage. Many summer visitors imagine it almost deserted after Labor Day, when most of the fair-weather tourists depart and locals hunker down for long bouts of fog and winter weather that give the island its “Gray Lady” nickname.
Yet Nantucket Town may be at its most beautiful during the cold off-season, particularly for the festival known as Nantucket Noel, running from Thanksgiving to New Year’s. Indeed, some of the savviest tourists visit the island specifically for the event, for which residents bedeck the halls, doorways, windows, and even the island’s distinctive landmark, the Brant Point Lighthouse, with seasonal cheer. The streets are lined with 200 Christmas trees individually decorated with personal and family mementos, as well as natural ornaments such as starfish, shells, and the island’s famous cranberries. Few places during this time offer a warmer ambience or more welcoming spirit.
Nantucket’s allure today stems from a combination of its isolation and its fabled past. The island rose to prominence in the early 1800s as the whaling capital of the world, back in the days when the sea giants were a global source of fuel. Herman Melville immortalized his own whaling experiences and the local industry in Moby Dick. Captains and merchants who reaped the financial benefits of the trade built stately homes clustered around Nantucket Town on the harbor, the hub of commercial activity. But the boom went bust after the discovery of petroleum, and Nantucket fell, for a period, into obscurity.
Tourism helped the island’s economy recover near the end of the 19th century. Over time, residents enacted statutes to preserve the character of the environment and protect the beaches from development. The wealth and elegance of the whaling heyday remain visible today, particularly in the National Landmark Historic District, which includes almost 800 structures built before 1840. Colonial, Federal, and Greek Revival styles of architecture dominate. Private homes lining the cobblestone streets have been joined by equally quaint inns and boutiques, while distinctive shingled cottages and clam shacks have popped up around the island. Hardly a structure, commercial or private, is left unadorned during the holiday season.
The highlight of Nantucket Noel is the Christmas Stroll, always on the first weekend of December. Some 10,000 visitors join the merriment, complete with a visit from Santa Claus, who, with beard flowing in the brisk wind, arrives by sea on a Coast Guard vessel. The crowd claps and shouts greetings as he docks at Straight Wharf at the foot of Main Street. A carriage―drawn by horses rather than reindeer―awaits Santa and Mrs. Claus. The period-clad Town Crier leads the celebrated couple and their fans along Main Street to a warm indoor reception spot where Santa and the missus meet the children.
Afterward, kids and parents can also chat with a talking Christmas tree, a 20-foot natural beauty decorated by residents. (An employee of the nearby bank, hidden on its second floor with a view of visitors below, gives voice to the fir.) Throughout town, choral groups in Victorian finery sing carols, other musicians perform, and bell choirs chime. Visitors and residents alike enjoy holiday house tours and readings by a theater group of Dylan Thomas’s timeless A Child’s Christmas in Wales. At the Preservation Institute, Nantucket artists and craftsmen stage a craft show to tempt those in need of additional gifts. Shops offer cookies, steaming cups of hot chocolate, and other refreshments, and anyone in want of something stouter can usually find a merchant offering a cognac tasting to help ward off the wintry chill.
The end of the evening is a great time to relish a local holiday feast. Opening courses in our menu offer renditions of island bounty, such as its famed seafood. Herb-flecked New England–style popovers soak up the juices from the Beef Tenderloin with Port-Beach Plum Reduction, while savory, flavorful sides round out the meal. For dessert, enjoy a silky, fragrant Ginger Pumpkin Cheesecake, then toast the evening with a classic New England cider beverage, the Stone Fence. Inspired by Nantucket’s rich history and colorful customs, these special dishes will help you create a most memorable Christmas celebration.