More than a decade ago, a man showed up on Ruth Myers’ doorstep with a tale about Cuffy Cockroach and a turtle soup party that lasted 13 hours until the last participant staggered home, singing, at 3 a.m.
The party was held by the family of Col. Samuel Freebody, a wealthy merchant who owned Myers’ clapboard house in the 1700s. The man who told the tale was a descendant.
The whole thing began when a captain on one of Freebody’s merchant ships brought a giant turtle back from the West Indies in 1752.
“They had to serve the turtle right away so they rowed over to Goat Island (off Newport) and got the best cook on the island, Cuffy Cockroach,” Myers said.
The dinner began at 2 p.m. with the blast of ceremonial cannon fire. The raucous party finally ended in the middle of the night, when the guests were given hot toddies and each was serenaded home to his door.
When Myers launched the annual “Christmas in Newport” celebration in 1971, she made sure a modern version of the “turtle frolic” was among the events.
The party has grown to a monthlong celebration of music, arts and parties at some of Newport’s famous 19th-Century mansions.
The events are the town’s effort to replace “the blare of music and confusion of tired people in shopping areas” with a month of “beauty and serenity,” Myers said.
Some concessions to modern life have been necessary.
The annual turtle party, for example, is now accessible by road, and mock turtle soup made with beef is served because it is illegal to eat real turtles. But for the most part, the events could easily have been in another century.
The sea-faring town also offers a glimpse of what it was like to decorate Christmas trees before factories churned out plastic balls and blinking lights.
“The Victorian Christmas tree was the accumulation of objects a family made or found over time. It wasn’t until the turn of the century that they manufactured glass balls,” said John Cherol, director of the Preservation Society of Newport County, which runs eight of Newport’s most elaborate properties.
Chateau-Sur-Mer, a 19th-Century mansion owned by the society, has a 17-foot Christmas tree hung with apples, Victorian cards, small American flags, red bows, paper cones filled with candy, dolls--even an antique train set.
“The trees were often hung with presents for the small children because, in Victorian times, the tree often went up on Christmas Eve,” Cherol said.
Victorians also would keep the last roses of summer, dip the stems in wax, wrap the buds in cotton and put them in a drawer. At Christmas, the roses would be put in water and, with a great deal of luck, bloom again, he said.
The doors, windows and picture frames are hung with 300 yards of laurel, dotted with red ribbons. Fresh holly and evergreen branches from the grounds cover the fireplace mantels. The greens are filled with grapes, pears, apples and gilded walnuts.
“In the old days, the nuts were wrapped with real gold foil,” Cherol said. In one more concession to cost and modernity, “Now they’re just sprayed with gold-colored paint.”