Red Christmas

Even before I read a nice little article yesterday on how the holidays obtained their color themes, I was already planning to focus on red:  it’s been a dreary week and I needed a little cheering up. The red that we now associate with Christmas comes from an amalgamation of historical and cultural forces:  iconic images of St. Nicholas of Myra wearing red robes, holly berries and the apple props of medieval mystery plays, the Victorian poinsettia craze, the colorful depictions of Santa Claus by nineteenth-century cartoonist Thomas Nast, and the Coco-Cola Santa Claus of the early twentieth century. I’ve already covered Saint Nicholas in a lengthy post a week or so ago, so this perspective is going to be structural. Here are some of my favorite red houses, tastefully decorated for the season in typical understated New England fashion. I’m starting up north, in my hometown of York, Maine, where I happened to be last week before our weather turned dreadfully dreary, and then I’ll work my way home to Salem via Newburyport.

Two of the Historic House Museums of Old York:  the 1719 Old Gaol (Jail) and the 1754 Jefferds Tavern. As you can see, the gaol is situated on a little hill that overlooks York Village below. There is a large new barn-like structure attached to the tavern which I dont really care for (despite the fact that it is named after my wonderful high school guidance counselor) so Im showing a vantage point that excludes it.

treees 001

red Gaol 2

red gaol

treees 011

Heading south, I stopped in Newburyport–a city of white houses for the most part–and found two adorable colonial sideshingled houses on side streets in the south end.

red house Newburyport

treees 019

treees 021

Back in Salem, where there are not a lot of red houses, really. But there is venerable Red’s Sandwich Shop downtown, and the Manning house in North Salem, which was once in the midst of one of the most famous orchard nurseries in Massachusetts. This was the home of Nathaniel Hawthorne’s uncle, Robert Manning, a famous “pomologist” (an expert in the cultivation of fruit trees) and according to the sign, also a stagecoach agent–news to me. The last picture in this group is a rare red Greek Revival on Essex Street: you seldom see a house in this style painted red, as they are meant to mimic stone. From these pictures it appears we like our red houses with white trim in Salem.

Red's Sandwich Shop

red house North Salem

red Manning House

red greek revival

Finally, Nathaniel Hawthorne’s c. 1750 birthplace, moved to its present location adjacent to the House of the Seven Gables on the harbor in 1958 from downtown. A rather gnarly tree seems to be threatening it! And last but not least, a wonderful old (fishing?) shack on the other side of the Gables: a little worse for wear maybe, but still red and picturesque–it does seem to be crying out for a wreath at this time of year.

Red Hawthorne House

Red Hawthorne House rear

red shack

12 responses to “Red Christmas

  • Alastair Savage

    Do you think there may be a Scandinavian influence here? If you travel around Sweden, Finland and Norway, you often see red-painted wooden houses and barns sticking out in remote snowy landscapes. I’m wondering because red isn’t a very (modern) English colour for wooden exteriors. In the original Essex and neighbouring Suffolk, you’re more likely to see pink houses, the famous Suffolk pink. Here’s an example: and here (with an explantation of how they made in days of yore): .

    • daseger

      Hello Alastair: thanks for the links–I love Suffolk pink! (my mother’s family is from Diss). I’m really not an expert on colonial architecture at all, just an admirer, but my understanding is that most wooden houses were painted white or to resemble stone. I’m not sure when the red comes in, but I do not think it was because of Scandinavian influences which were not strong in New England. All of the historic paint collections have subdued reds which are similar to what most of these houses are painted (I brightened the colors in the photos because it’s so dreary here!), but I’m not sure how historic they are. Apparently the INTERIORS of colonial homes could be quite vibrant, though. Hopefully someone will weigh in here!

  • julia fogg

    Stonking as us Brits might say! Happy Xmas Donna

  • kim

    What is a Pemelogist? I am not sure that I am spelling that right on Robert Manning’s house? I tried to look it up, but not sure I got the right definition–either gems or jails? Thanks!


    • daseger

      Hello Kim, the sign is a little weathered but I put the term in the post: pomologist. Manning was the New England expert on the cultivation of fruit trees–pears in particular–and had a large orchard all around this house.

  • kim

    I must have scanned through too quickly and did not see it! Very cool! Thank you! 🙂

  • markd60

    Nice. I love barns.

  • geistkleid

    BEAUTIFUL. Personally, I think the red represents the blood of life coming back into the earth. The same red that explodes at Valentine’s and Chinese New Year, when we need that overdrive to get us moving through through the dreary days. (longest wavelength in the spectrum, more energy) The green complements this, being the green that we can hope for after winter solstice, when the light slowly comes back.

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