I lament the loss of what was once a clear division of the major fall and winter holidays. Christmas was always my favorite time of year as a child; but impatient as I was for the sights, sounds, smells, and ultimately the spoils of this most festive of holidays, I knew you had to wait until the day after Thanksgiving for the magic to happen – claymation Christmas specials on TV, neighbors adorning their homes with colored lights, stores unveiling elaborate holiday displays. Even as a kid, I realized there was a time and a place for all that stuff and that Santa’s big scene would lose a bit of its luster if you overdid it.
Yet with no regard for such traditional boundaries, Christmas continues encroaching on Thanksgiving. Call me old fashioned, but I find the idea of department stores opening on turkey day to be nothing short of obscene, and I physically recoil when I walk into a mall in October and see holiday displays or hear Christmas music.
So I take a small but satisfying measure of comfort in visiting Salem, Massachusetts – which may be the only city in the world where Halloween encroaches on Christmas.
With its cobblestone streets, classic brick buildings, and historic architecture, Salem embodies the spirit of colonial New England. First settled by Europeans in 1626, the coastal city has a rich maritime history, with Salem Harbor having served as a key port during the Revolutionary War, and was home to Nathaniel Hawthorne, the 19th century author who grappled with his Puritan heritage in some of the most famous works in American literary history.
But the episode Salem is best known for is the infamous series of legal proceedings known as the Salem witch trials. Between 1692 and 1693, a climate of superstition, religious zealotry, and mass paranoia led to the execution of 20 individuals accused of practicing witchcraft. The trials inform Salem’s cultural identity to this day and have made it a year-round destination for those looking to immerse themselves in the city’s spooky lore. Never is this truer than during the Halloween season, when tourists from near and far don costumes and descend upon the city in droves. If you think finding a parking spot at the mall on Black Friday is bad, try driving to Salem on any weekend in October.
All of this forms a unique backdrop for the holiday season. The city definitely gets into the Yuletide spirit, but spirits of another kind seem loom in the background. Through the illuminated trees of Salem Common, you can see the eerie red glow of the Salem Witch Museum.
Lampposts are festooned with green wreaths and bright red bows, and behind them are boutiques catering to practitioners of modern witchcraft and kitschy shops selling all of your occult needs.
A giant Christmas tree stands in the town center; in front of it is a statue of a witch riding a broom (and holding Christmas tree ornaments).
And it’s hard to walk by the Old Burying Point cemetery without thinking about scary ghost stories and tales of the glories of Christmases long, long ago.
But supernatural heritage aside, the reason I chose Salem for the location of this year’s Boston BarHopper Christmas Special is because of its deep New England roots. Christmas is an occasion to reenact centuries-old traditions, and for me, I’ve long been enamored of that classic, late-19th-century vision of the holiday season – bundled-up shoppers walking along gas-lit streets on a snowy night, carrying wrapped packages back to their home, where they could enjoy a brandy and warm their bones by the fire. Salem is one of the oldest cities in the country, and with its narrow, pedestrian-friendly streets, unique shops, and timeworn buildings, I feel closer to the source of that romanticized image.
Plus, it’s great for barhopping, with plenty of bars and restaurants within walking distance of each other.
The Tavern at the Hawthorne Hotel
The Hawthorne Hotel, named for one of Salem’s most famous sons, has seen many a wintry holiday.
The stately hotel first opened its doors in 1925 and remains a Salem institution. Hotel guests and locals alike congregate at the Hawthorne’s cozy Tavern, which has a decent-size bar, comfy chairs, and a fireplace.
And even here, there’s a hint of the macabre. The Black Cat is made with hot chocolate, Baileys, and Kahlua, and topped with whipped cream. The name may invoke Halloween, but this decadently rich and sweet drink is well suited to a December night.
If sitting by the fire doesn’t take the winter chill out of your bones, the Fireside cocktail will. Made with hot apple cider, spiced rum, and stirred with a cinnamon stick, it packs all the flavors of the season into a warm mug.
The Irish coffee gets sweetened up with a little whipped cream but is otherwise pretty traditional – Jameson, coffee, and a teaspoon of brown sugar. It’s a simple drink, and a timeless one; and exactly the sort of beverage you can imagine generations of locals ordering when stopping in to warm up after a night of Christmas shopping.
Address: 18 Washington Square West, Salem
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If the familiar confines of the historic Hawthorne Hotel conjure the ghosts of Salem’s past, Opus offers a glimpse of the future. Bringing craft cocktails to the North Shore, Opus has the polished look of a modern cocktail bar – exposed brick walls, a long, curvy bar with an illuminated surface, and an impressive array of infused spirits and house-made mixers. Not to mention a cocktail menu that’s inventive and brimming with the flavors of the season.
The Flipjack is made with Applejack, house-made pumpkin spice syrup, and an egg. Creamy and well balanced, it’s garnished with a dash of dried cinnamon, which is extracted from Opus’s house-spiced bourbon and then dehydrated. The pumpkin syrup gives the drink a special seasonal flair. And while “flip” cocktails may be in vogue, Applejack first became popular back in the colonial days, making it an entirely appropriate spirit for a Salem bar.
The Sophia also captures the flavors of autumn and winter. It combines vodka infused with apples from nearby Brooksby Farm in Peabody, Vya aperitivo, and cinnamon, with a dried apple slice serving as an artful garnish.
My friend took one sip and pronounced it “trouble in a glass,” and she was right. Crisp, fruity, and smooth, it’s a potent drink that goes down way too easily.
Address: 87 Washington Street, Salem
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Witch’s Brew Café
The Witch’s Brew Cafe is unlikely to make it onto a Salem tourist map. It certainly won’t be a destination for anyone in search of a contemporary cocktail menu. But I’m giving it honorable mention for this year’s post. If you happen to be exploring Salem on a cold December night, it’s hard not to be attracted by the bar’s front windows, strewn with Christmas lights, and be drawn to the warmth beyond them.
The Witch’s Brew is a basic neighborhood tavern favored by locals. It may not have the cushy furniture of the Hawthorne or the sleek visage of Opus, but it does have a fireplace – which I greatly appreciated after enduring the frigid temperatures while attending Salem’s Christmas tree lighting.
And I didn’t see any seasonal microbrews or holiday cocktails on the menu. But when you stop into a warm, cozy bar on winter’s night, sometimes nothing beats a classic.
Hot drinks have their merits, but a Guinness has a special way of fortifying you against cold weather, holiday shoppers, and any supernatural phenomena you might encounter in the Witch City.
Address: 156 Derby Street, Salem
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Salem Puritans’ fear and loathing of witches is well chronicled. You know what else they didn’t like? Christmas. They dismissed the holiday as a Catholic thing and condemned celebrations associated with it. Today, of course, Salem happily embraces witchcraft and Yuletide alike. When I was a kid, I used to wonder whether Santa had to dodge airplanes when he made his way out of the North Pole. In Salem airspace, I suppose he’d have to contend with broomsticks, too.
Whether your celebrations involve fuzzy red hats or pointed black ones, I hope your holidays are warm, safe, merry, and bright.
P.S. If you're looking for seasonal drinks closer to Boston, check out last year's holiday post for a few unique suggestions. And if you find yourself in the confines of Faneuil Hall, here are a few ways that even a Boston native can enjoy this tourist mecca in the wintertime.
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