Every year, on a cold day in December, my family packs up the car with mugs of steaming hot chocolate and Bing Crosby crooning from the speakers to meet with our close family friends for what has become one of my favorite Christmas traditions of all.
As we head straight up 95 North, visions of sugarplums – or, at least, the glistening morsels of our annual festive feast – dance in our heads. It doesn’t matter where my sister and I are living at the time – we make sure to come home for our outing to Essex, CT.
Have you ever wanted to just live inside the village where a Hallmark Christmas movie takes place? The tinsel-covered towns are perpetually nestled in a blanket of snow, while garland is draped from every outdoor fixture and holiday cheer fills the frosted air. It’s a magical place where Scrooge-esque business people come from the big city and melt into the very personification of the Christmas spirit, swept into a veritable snow globe of romance and familial comfort.
If you think these towns are too quaint, too picture-perfect, too “Where is Candace Cameron Bure hiding?” to be real, let it be known that they do exist, (to quote that M&Ms Christmas commercial). And I’ve gone to the same one every holiday season for the past 15 years.
Essex is as close to an actual Stars Hollow as you can get. It features a bustling main street dotted with charming shops with bells that tinkle to announce your arrival. The quaint stores are settled in between large homes that date back to the 1800s. It even has its very own gazebo, lit up with fairy lights. And at Christmastime, the town becomes plump with holiday whimsy. Trees are trimmed, carolers sing, and colored lights twinkle merrily.
I spend the day ducking in and out of the boutiques, which offer a warm respite from the winter cold. And as the sun sets and the cerulean sky starts to seep in, my friends and I enjoy a hot cocoa before dinner. We devour delicious food at the historic Griswold Inn – the highlight of the trip. Known for its holiday decor, my friend once dubbed Essex “Christmas Town.” And one year, it actually became just that.
Indeed, that small Connecticut village is where the Hallmark movie, Christmas at Pemberley Manor, was filmed (according to both IMDb and my own eagle-eyed observation). My dad and I discovered the holiday flick, which is a Christmas-y retelling of Pride and Prejudice, after coming home from our annual visit in 2018. One second, we were watching the cozily predictable love story unfold, the next I was frantically texting our friends that the movie was shot in our very own “Christmas Town.” And there it was: Behind Jessica Lowndes, starring as Elizabeth Bennett, was the unmistakable sign of Essex’s Black Seal restaurant. Essex had become a real-life Hallmark town.
To be fair, not every aspect of a classic Hallmark movie is found in the village. In all the years of visiting during the holiday season, I have never been invited to perform in a Christmas pageant or save a failing hotel armed with nothing but Christmas cheer.
Nor have I been swept off my feet by a local (although my friend’s mom once wasted no time in letting our waiter know there were some single women in his presence). And yet, those Hallmark moments persist. Like the time I saw a couple get engaged over a romantic, candlelit dinner underneath a canopy of garland and cherry-red ribbons. Or the year there was a Christmas tree raffle, with each evergreen dressed in a different theme. The trees were awash in an array of colors, from everything to the traditional forest green to a fluorescent pink. Santa had also paraded down Main Street in a horse-drawn wagon.
While we can’t venture to Essex this year due to the ongoing coronavirus pandemic, the magic of the town will still be felt as we hang up ornaments we’ve collected from the village, dine on a festive meal, Zoom with our close friends, and, of course, cozy up on the couch for a viewing of Christmas at Pemberley Manor.
Keep scrolling to see more of Essex at Christmastime!