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Holiday on the Shoreline

There’s a scene in the classic movie ‘Christmas in Connecticut’ where Robert Shayne tells Barbara Stanwyck that she has to go arrange her Christmas visit with her soon-to-be-boyfriend, to which she reacts: “Arrange it, are you crazy? Where am I gonna get a farm? I haven’t even got a window box!”

If you live on the Shoreline, it’s funny. We have farms and window boxes. We also have a string of downtowns, village greens, beaches, and boats that make Christmas here a blend of what a more modern Christmas has become. Christmas on the Shoreline is about families, arts of the season, offbeat events, and great shopping.

What’s most amazing about this stretch from Branford to Stonington and north to Essex is the consistency of the great experiences from town to town. In one weekend day, you can shop the Branford green, move up to lunch in Guilford, get back to old New England holiday traditions in Old Saybrook and Old Lyme, and cap it off with a tour of Stonington harbor’s lights and dinner.
Arrange it? Not so crazy. We even have Christmas lights on the farm and wreaths on the window boxes.

Christmas around here is really all about walking. Almost every town has a holiday tree lighting, parade, or Christmas stroll. Guilford hosts a beautiful Candlelight Stroll on the Green. But one of the most immersive experiences is in Stonington. The town’s annual Village Stroll. The town goes all out for the choral music, sing-alongs, and hot cocoa. Check the holiday windows around the harbor and Wadawanuck Square. Merchants compete for the best one.

Madison also puts on a good family show. Its Christmas Parade takes place at the Stop & Shop parking lot and continues down the Post Road, through the center of town, and ends at the Town Green for the tree lighting. Luminarias will light the parade route so that parade participants and Santa can find their way. Caroling and cocoa will accompany the tree lighting. It’s followed by a choral Christmas concert at the Congregation Church on the Green.

The town that lays the claim to the “granddaddy” of all holiday parades on the Shoreline is the Niantic Light Parade & Winterfest. This prelude to the parade features a Chowder & Chili Cook-off, Pictures with Santa, Magic Shows, Face Painting, Horse-Drawn Carriage Rides, and Ice Sculptures. Fireworks will kick off the Annual Light Parade. Parade floats, dance groups, and Santa himself then parade down Main Street in Niantic.

Superlatives aside, it’s tough to top Essex for family activities. On any night, its downtown is lit by the Old New England streetlights and full of the charm of The Griswold Inn’s decorations. During the day, it’s train time. The North Pole Express is basically an adaptation of the popular holiday book and movie, The Polar Express. Kids and parents board at the Essex Steam Train station and are instantly transported into a scene from this classic story. Live performers narrate the “trip to the North Pole” during the ride, which lasts about an hour and fifteen minutes round-trip.

The Shoreline Holiday arts scene revolves around Guilford and Old Lyme. It’s hardly all of it, but two ongoing events are absolutely essential. The first is the Guilford Art Center’s Annual Artistry: American Crafts for the Holidays Celebrates Handmade Works. It runs through January. During “Artistry,” works spill from the shop into the gallery at the Center, making it a great holiday scene for artists, crafters, and bargain hunters. Scores of new artists will have their work featured this year, offering shoppers a huge array of unique gift ideas. New works are added throughout the course of the show, so repeat visits may snag a “find” they might not have seen before.

One-of-a-kind, handmade crafts by 250 artists from across America will be featured, including ceramics, glass, jewelry, fiber, ornaments, accessories, toys, specialty foods, and more. Artistry is also a fairly sophisticated shopping experience. It offers visitors a variety of shopping experiences: Personal shoppers are available for advice and gift-giving ideas; a registry makes gift selection easy; and businesses can take advantage of personal shoppers and discounts for employee holiday gift-giving.

The Florence Griswold Museum is a yearly pilgrimage for many on the Shoreline and points beyond. Over the past 10 years, Miss Florence’s Artist Tree has achieved iconic status among art lovers and casual fans. Over 140 artists from across the country have donated works to this one-of-a-kind holiday icon. The idea of contemporary artists painting palettes is a nod to the Museum’s history as the center for the Lyme Art Colony and alludes to the door and wall panels the artists painted throughout Miss Florence’s boardinghouse over a century ago. To mark the tenth anniversary, the palettes will be also be displayed on trees and wreaths in the Griswold House, which will be decorated for a 1910 Christmas. Historically accurate decorations reveal homespun creativity and the use of surprising materials. Christmastime teas, special events for families, hands-on crafts for children and adults, and wonderful items in The Shop are worth checking out.

Old Lyme is also home to the Lyme Art Association’s most festive art exhibition and sale—their annual Deck the Walls holiday show. More than 200 original works of art by member artists will be on display and priced to sell as holiday gifts. Artwork by newly inducted Elected Artists will be featured in their own exhibition in the Goodman Gallery. The opening reception is free to the public and features live music. The Deck the Walls exhibition offers patrons and art lovers from throughout Connecticut and New England an opportunity to view and buy exceptional representational art at prices that make artsy gift-giving easy.

For a decidedly Olde New England look, East Lyme’s The SmithHarris House offers an open-house tour decorated in historic decor, and samples of some seasonal treats made from recipes of the past. A $5 suggested donation for the house tour is requested. This nationally renowned troupe of historical reenactors perform The Magic of the Old Curiosity Shoppe, which follows a young woman as she seeks the truth behind the brooch she finds among forgotten items in a curiosity shoppe.

Blessed with Books: An independent bookstore is a rare retail item these days. The Shoreline is blessed with several. Shoreline Books off the Guilford Green crams a lot of literary titles into a small space. One of the best spots for buying art books anywhere. R.J. Julia’s on Main Street in Madison is also a great gift spot. In fact, it has a separate room for board games, journals, and more literary pursuits. Oh yeah, and great food in the back. The Niantic Book Barn (41 West Main Street) goes from iconic into legendary status. Real book lovers will tell you it’s the closest thing to NYC’s Strand Bookstore between here and Canada. Literally a riot of used and rare books. Smaller outlets in Niantic are located at 269 Main Street and 291 Main Street, downtown.

Foodies: Bliss Gourmet. On the Post Road in Westbrook, Bliss is a wonderful contradiction. It has the freshest meats, the best sandwiches, and insanely decadent desserts. Ordering for a holiday party or stopping after a day at the outlets, it’s all good at Bliss. Also: It’s hard to tell whether Old Saybrook has played host to Dagmar’s or Dagmar’s has played host to Old Saybrook. It adds to the decadent dessert wealth in the Westbrook-Old Saybrook neighborhood by adding a heavy dose of Austrian and Bavarian pastries and pies.

Get Dressed: Yali, Indigo Blue, Robertson Madison, Mix, and a few other fashion and accessory shops are covered in our Tidings section. Right off the greens of many Shoreline towns, there are a wealth of boutiques. Polished Boutique off the Green in Branford caters to the younger and funkier clientele. Guilford has a great strip of clothing shops on its western green border, and check out Tracy Brent for coats off the northern end of the green.

J. Horton on Main Street in Madison has a unique selection of accessories; and for the men, there’s no class like J. Alden in Essex.

Get Prepped: W.Salon in the alley on Madison’s Main Street is a great spot for the cocktail-party touchup or the big hairdo.

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