As the Christmas season approaches in 1770, Royal Gov. William Tryon readies himself, his wife and daughter, and their servants to move into Tryon Palace. On the banks of the Trent River in New Bern, the new palace will become the center for governmental affairs in the British colony of North Carolina and the home of its governor. On December 5, 1770, Governor Tryon hosts a grand opening gala.
As the sun sets to the west, darkness befalls the palace around 5 p.m. on these shortest days of the year. Servants light candles that illuminate and provide glimpses into the stately structure. The dining table, laden with meat pies, trifle, gingerbread, and punch, is set with reflective silver trays to maximize the glow of the flames. Supper begins late, perhaps at 10 p.m., and revelry continues into the wee hours of the morning. Attendees tip back glass after glass of rum as guests present toasts to honor the governor and his new abode.
True stories from the past, such as Governor Tryon’s first (and only) Christmas in the palace, serve as templates for today’s beloved holiday tradition, Candlelight Christmas at Tryon Palace. Each year, staff members at the historic site write a different script for the event. When Candlelight evenings arrive, interpreters act out the story line in first person, weaving attendees into the tale.
When staff members meet in January to select the year’s story, they search historical records for relatable characters: someone looking to climb the social ladder, someone who’s made a mistake and is wrestling with what to do next, someone who wants a better life for his or her children.
During Candlelight, colonial characters wearing period dress perform short vignettes around the palace. Last year, Allyson Eubanks, as the real-life figure Ann Cogdell, played the harpsichord for party guests portrayed by Ed Jekel, Chris Rivera, and Noreen Jekel. photograph by Charles Harris
“A lot of times when we learn history and sit through history classes, we’re exposed to the big things, like war, and movers and shakers of the time,” says Matt Arthur, who coordinates the living history program at Tryon Palace and authors the annual Candlelight script. “I try to find ways to help people make connections, to understand that our ancestors were people, too.”
This year, the Candlelight story, set in 1771, involves Sarah Wilson, who comes from England and masquerades as Queen Charlotte’s younger sister. Wilson convinces some of the colonies’ elite families to host her and throw parties in her honor. Well-to-do colonists fall harder for her trickery because they’ll do anything to gain favor with the British crown. Servants and some guests are more dubious, and their suspicions pepper the evening with tidbits of gossip.
Tryon Palace has an interesting perspective on history. Completed in late 1770 by acclaimed architect John Hawks, the palace didn’t earn Governor Tryon much favor with colonists due to the heavy taxes that were levied to pay for the elaborate construction. The palace’s namesake departed in June 1771 to become governor of New York. Josiah Martin succeeded Tryon as royal governor of North Carolina and moved into the palace in August 1771. As revolutionary momentum mounted, Martin fled in May 1775.
The palace endured tumultuous times and periods of disrepair during the American Revolution but continued to serve as the setting for notable happenings. On January 16, 1777, Richard Caswell took the oath of office at Tryon Palace to become the first governor of the State of North Carolina. President George Washington attended a dinner and ball at the palace during a 1791 visit to New Bern.
As the new Capitol neared completion in Raleigh in 1794, the state legislature met at Tryon Palace one final time. Four years later, in February 1798, a fire started in the cellar, where hay was stored. It spread into the main building and destroyed all but the kitchen and stable offices.
New Bern moved on. George Street extended over the original palace site. A bridge spanned the Trent River. Houses rose from former palace grounds. The surviving west wing became apartments.
But stories of the palace endured. And some North Carolina citizens desired to see it reconstructed. In 1945, Gov. Gregg Cherry appointed the 25-member Tryon Palace Commission. With money from the state legislature as well as a hefty donation from New Bern native Maude Moore Latham, restoration work began. Buildings were demolished or moved. U.S. Highway 70, including its bridge, was rerouted. The same architecture firm that restored Colonial Williamsburg took on the project. John Hawks’s original plans for the palace guided the structure’s second coming. On April 8, 1959, Tryon Palace held a grand reopening.
Due to its broken timeline, the palace has two histories. One is the long arc, stretching back to North Carolina’s colonial days. The other is the history of the current structure, which has now been the palace for 63 years, significantly longer than the original, which stood for almost 28.
Twenty years after the reconstructed palace opened, it hosted the first Candlelight Christmas celebration. While attendees expect certain hallmarks annually — dancers in the council chambers, period costumes, and black powder fireworks — other details change every year.
“Candlelight is a tradition in its own right,” says Hadley Cheris, the gardens and greenhouse manager who oversees palace decor inside and out. “The event is as much a tradition as this physical place.”
Candlelight strikes a balance between the simplicity of the 18th century and the finery that visitors may expect to see, like the wreath, laden with fruit in the Della Robbia style of the Italian Renaissance, adorning the palace’s front gate. photograph by Charles Harris
Cheris and her team have evolving discussions about how to portray the palace for the holidays. Last year, they chose a botanical theme. During the second half of the 18th century, society, especially the upper class, became fascinated with botany. Queen Charlotte of Mecklenburg-Strelitz particularly enjoyed studying plants, so the palace’s council chambers were decorated in her honor. Birds-of-paradise, whose scientific name, Strelitzia reginae, honors the queen, festooned the mantel and door casings. The grand staircase sported a tree of life motif.
As Cheris tours visitors through the palace, she repeatedly stresses that the decor is not true to the time period. Although the decorations tell a story of what was happening in the world during a certain era, what we see in the palace today is highly overstated. “We did decorations that were period-correct one year, and people asked if we had budget issues,” Cheris says. “To understand how lavish things were, we have to step things up to translate to today’s audience.”
Small bits of native greenery, as suggested by the carol “The Holly and the Ivy,” would’ve been the focus for doorframes, mantels, and tables. No one would’ve wasted precious candles by setting them in windows. Citrus fruits, commonly used in wreaths and garlands today, were extremely expensive.
“If you could’ve afforded to ship in fruit and then put it on the wall, people would’ve questioned your sanity,” Cheris says with a grin.
In an effort to communicate the governor’s status and prominence, staff members go over the top, but they are clear about what is true to history and what is exaggerated. Candlelight attendees come to see grandeur and finery, which is expected for the state’s first family, but palace staff want them to understand how modern amenities skew our idea of what the past was actually like.
The Jonkonnu tradition was added to Candlelight in 1999. Enslaved Africans practiced this Christmastide celebration, also known as John Coonering or John Kunering, where they expressed the culture of their homeland through costumes, music, and dance. The single day of celebration provided a reprieve from slave labor and a loosening of social constructs. Enslaved men and women were allowed to greet their masters at the front door, to visit neighboring plantations, and to release pent-up frustration through song and dance.
Today at Tryon Palace, Jonkonnu involves a core group of seven characters and 25 to 30 community members who join for drumming and dancing. Local groups from churches and schools take part in the tradition. “For enslaved people, Jonkonnu was the only day that they could celebrate where they came from,” says Sharon C. Bryant, the African American outreach coordinator at Tryon Palace, who oversees Jonkonnu.
As part of the tradition of Jonkonnu, drummers and dancers like Camille Staten perform in the public square to show how some enslaved people might have celebrated Christmas. photograph by Charles Harris
Jonkonnu likely first appeared in Jamaica during colonial times and spread through the Caribbean islands. In the North American colonies, Jonkonnu was largely found in North Carolina. Although no records indicate that Jonkonnu took place in New Bern, historical accounts show that the tradition was practiced in Edenton and at Somerset Place in the 1820s, and in Wilmington in the mid-1800s.
Today, Candlelight attendees particularly enjoy the Rag Man character. The multicolored costume, made entirely of scraps of cloth, wriggles and waves as the man, or woman, dances to the drumbeat. Each rag represents a member of his or her family.
“When he or she puts on that costume, it reminds me of an eagle soaring in the air,” Bryant says. “It’s a spirit roaming around us, roaming free.”
Another important part of the Candlelight story line is the culinary tradition. Servants worked tirelessly to prepare elaborate dishes for the governor’s table. “As you read through cookbooks of the time period, you start figuring out, Oh, so this is going to take a very long time,” says Matt Arthur, Tryon’s living history program coordinator. “We think a gelatin dessert is easy; it’s just a box of Jell-O and boiling water. Back then, they were boiling calves’ feet, going through a purification process, using bladders of freshwater fish and deer antlers. It took a long time to do all of that.”
Arthur considers any 1700s recipe that involves gelatin to be a “power flex.” Those dishes demonstrated to the governor’s dinner guests that he had enough servants to pull off such complicated recipes. Food was a way for people of stature to show how wealthy they were without saying it.
All of the cooking and other preparations are completed by the time Candlelight rolls around, but you might find kitchen staff Mark Eckert (right) and Joey Carlton cleaning up after their chores for the ball. photograph by Charles Harris
Sweets are another example. Sugar was expensive. A holiday table filled with sweet treats, such as marzipan, punch, Jordan almonds, chocolate tarts, and gingerbread, meant that the host family was doing very well.
During Candlelight tours, no cooking takes place in the hearth room. In keeping with the first-person spirit of the evening, those preparations would’ve been completed hours before the event. But visitors who tour the palace on any other day during the holiday season are sure to see seasonal specialties like gingerbread or wassail in progress.
Each year, the challenge of telling stories of the past gets harder. The world continues to shrink. We can tour the globe with devices in the palms of our hands. It’s impossible to forget what we know now and place ourselves 250 years ago, in the daily lives of colonists and enslaved people who found themselves in an unfamiliar place, disconnected from family, friends, and customs.
But historic sites across the state keep trying. This month, interpreters at Tryon Palace tell another 250-year-old holiday story in a reconstructed 60-year-old building. They bend the rules of society to better communicate the big picture. Guests of the governor never would’ve been invited into the cellar, where the rum was stored and servants slept. But those servants had stories, too, and for most of us, our social status more closely mirrors that of those servants than the elite ruling class. If we try to understand what it took for them to turn fibers into thread using a spinning wheel or ease a toothache with a swig of rum or spend the better part of a winter day in total darkness, maybe we’ll appreciate their contributions to the conveniences that we enjoy today.
“These stories help hook in others — new guests and the next generation of museum professionals,” Arthur says. “That’s how we continue to breathe new life into our past.”
To commemorate our 90th anniversary, we’ve compiled a time line that highlights the stories, contributors, and themes that have shaped this magazine — and your view of the Old North State — using nine decades of our own words.