VALLEY-SHORE — If you haven’t been feeling the Christmas spirit lately, there’s an instant antidote for that. It’s as simple as flipping through the pages of “A Connecticut Christmas, Celebrating the Holiday in Classic New England Style,” a book of photographs by Chester’s Caryn B. Davis and text by Connecticut author Eric D. Lehman.
The 10-by-8-inch coffee table book, recently published by Guilford’s Globe Pequot Press, features images of Connecticut landscapes, homes, churches, barns and boats all decked out during the holiday season.
Davis comes to the business of photography with 30 years of experience behind her. She originally worked in documentary television, but since 2000 has been working as a freelance photographer, specializing in architecture, marine, portraits and travel.
Jacques Pepin, chef and author, describes the publication as a “sentimental journey through the lore of CT, which makes you want to sing Irving Berlin’s White Christmas… From churches, festivals and town greens to private homes, farms and barns, this heartwarming book makes you smile.”
Already sold out in its first printing of about 3,000 copies, the book is obviously a hit. Davis has been and continues to do numerous book signings and has been getting lots of press.
Interviewed in the Chester studio/home she shares with husband and artist, Leif Nilsson, Davis said that the book has been purchased as gifts for teachers, housewarming gifts for owners of newly purchased homes and for grown children who now live out of state. And when people buy it, she notes that they usually buy more than one.
Besides inspiring the Christmas spirit, it’s also a guide to events throughout Connecticut and includes a listing in the back of the book.
Among those events is the Boar’s Head Festival on 12th Night at the Asylum Hill Congregational Church in Hartford, a spectacular celebration of the Epiphany, which includes camels and llamas. The book notes the church was built of brownstone from Portland quarries.
Another is the Lantern Light Tours at Mystic Seaport, the 19th century living museum, where visitors enjoy a play, set in 1876 Christmas Eve, walking from place to place in the village, guided by actors in period costumes holding lanterns.
The lower Connecticut River Valley and Connecticut Shoreline towns are well represented in the book. It shows the huge display of lights in Ivoryton, the North Pole Express in Essex (otherwise known as the Valley Railroad Company’s Steam Train), artist decorated palettes and Christmas trees at the Florence Griswold Museum in Old Lyme (Griswold was born on Christmas in 1850), the arrival of Santa on a fire truck in Chester and lighted boat parades in Mystic and Essex, and more.
Lehman, the writer of the text, is the director of creative writing at the University of Bridgeport and is the author of several books and articles, many about Connecticut. “It was such a gift to have him as a writer,” said Davis. She said he came on board after the book was photographed and highlighted facts about the places she visited, as well as Christmas traditions.
He writes in the section about the Lockwood-Mathews Mansion in Norwalk that the state declared Christmas a legal holiday in 1845 and the following year, an American women’s
magazine, “Godey’s Lady’s Book,” popularized decorating trees at Christmas with its depiction of Queen Victoria’s tree.
Davis’ mansion photographs show a display of greenery and lights leading to a Christmas tree on the Grand Staircase, which the text notes cost $50,000 alone to construct in 1868, a sign of a move toward more elaborate architecture at the time.
This is Davis’ first book. It came to be after she pitched a story to Victoria Magazine about the Connecticut River Valley as a travel destination, which was narrowed down to travel in the area at Christmastime. Ann Nyberg, WTNH Channel 8 television news anchor and book author for the same book publisher, heard about it and connected her to Amy Lyons, an editor at Globe Pequot.
Davis said the editor already had a description of the Christmas book, but not the specifics. “All that was an evolution as we went along,” she said.
It took Davis two winter seasons, first six weeks and the next year eight, to travel to 40 towns, 62 locations to get the final some 400 shots in the book.
The search for subjects started with the expected. “Some were obvious, like the light shows and the boat parades,” she said. But over time, the search expanded from online research to people who heard about the project and offered suggestions.
Some shots were serendipitous, where Davis had a specific destination, but then also came upon something else. “A lot of it was driving to a certain place, shooting and stopping along the way.”
Although she had some trouble finding snow — she drove up to the northwest corner twice in one day for the sake of snow — and took the cover shot in Essex while not feeling well and freezing, the whole experience was far from unpleasant. “It was a whole lot of fun, I’ll tell you that,” she said.
Besides discovering interesting places in Connecticut, Davis also found out about the people who live in the state. “I met a lot of nice people,” she said, who were happy to share their stories, traditions and invite her into their homes and communities.