History and the holiday

Published 12:40 am Monday, November 19, 2012

Call it “candy and candlelight.” While that’s not precisely the theme for an event that has become a holiday tradition in Suffolk, it comes pretty close to portraying the ambience of the Suffolk-Nansemond Historical Society’s annual Candlelight Tour.

This year’s event, the 36th for the organization, incorporates elements of history, faith, culture and local merchants — and candy, of course.

Marcy Miller of Uniquely Leo's lights a candle on the tablescape she created for the Candlelight Tour from merchandise available in her North Main Street store. She is one of nine area merchants who arranged festive tablescapes for the houses on the Candlelight Tour.

The 36th annual Candlelight Tour will be held Dec. 1-2. The event aims to spotlight historic buildings in Suffolk while raising money for and bringing attention to the Suffolk-Nansemond Historical Society.

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When the first Candlelight Tour was held in 1976, the historical society hoped to convince folks that tearing down older buildings in the name of progress would be detrimental to the city’s heritage, according to historical society volunteer Sue Woodward.

Every year, the tour opens a handful of privately owned homes and other historical buildings to the public, allowing visitors to get into the holiday spirit while being transported to the Christmas seasons of yesteryear.

A theme — usually a neighborhood or historic event — connects the houses. This year, in the 150th anniversary year of the Union occupation of Suffolk, guests will visit two houses whose early owners dealt with the occupation in 1862-1863, and then two houses that represent the post-war return to prosperity.

The first two are the Prentis House, 321 N. Main St., and the Britt-Woodward House, 227 N. Main St.

The Prentis House, aside from representing the war period, also is a shining example of the benefit of renovating a historic building rather than tearing it down, Woodward said.

Many in the community called for the once-dilapidated Prentis House to be torn down before it was renovated, Woodward said. Since then, it has served as a business office and as the Suffolk Visitor Center before that institution moved to another renovated building down the street, the former Nansemond County courthouse.

The house at 227 N. Main St. is Woodward’s own home. The house is in the same neighborhood where her husband’s family has lived since the late 19th century.

Also on the tour, representing the post-war period, are the Richard Seth Eley-Duggan House, 251 N. Main St., which has been in the same family since 1878, and the Phillips-Dawson House, 137 Bank St., which serves as the headquarters of the historical society.

An addition to the tour this year will be festive tablescapes by regional merchants. Each home will have at least two tablescapes, which will be arranged by merchants including Uniquely Leo’s, Cordially Invited, Jester’s and Nansemond Antiques of Suffolk; 18th Century Merchant of Churchland; Mansion House Art and Antiques of Smithfield; Way Back Yonder Antiques of Portsmouth; Vaughan’s Jewelry and Fine Gifts of Edenton; and Ragged Robin Gifts of Virginia Beach.

In another festive first for the tour, three churches in Suffolk’s historic downtown will participate in an Advent Bell Ring at 5 p.m. both days of the tour. Songs of the season will ring out from the carillons of Main Street United Methodist Church, St. Paul’s Episcopal Church and Suffolk Christian Church.

There’s time during the tour for sweets, too. The Phillips-Dawson House will once again host the Sugar Plum Kitchen, where guests can purchase all manner of baked treats to satisfy their cravings.

Also open during the tour will be the 1885 Suffolk Seaboard Station Railroad Museum, 326 N. Main St., which is owned and managed by the historical society. On Saturday during the tour, Monette Harrell will be available to sign copies of “The Ham Book.” On Sunday at 2:30 and 3:30 p.m., Bill Cole will give a cooking demonstration. He is proprietor of the York River Bed & Breakfast and has recipes featured in the Virginia Bed & Breakfast Cookbook. Both books will be available for purchase.

Some downtown merchants also are offering special hours and discounts to tour ticket holders.

The 36th annual Candlelight Tour will be held Dec. 1-2 from 2 to 6 p.m. Tickets are $15 per person and are on sale at the Suffolk Seaboard Station Railroad Museum and the Suffolk Visitor Center. For more information, call the historical society at 539-2781.