It's Dec. 20, 1864.

"The Union Army, under Gen. William Tecumseh Sherman, is poised outside Savannah. This is a tense night," relates the hoop-skirted woman at Fort Jackson.

"Confederate soldiers are bustling about the fort, preparing to cross the Savannah River into South Carolina," she continues as she prepares to lead her charges into the fort's parade ground, where gunfire can be heard. It's all part of a monthlong celebration of Christmastime in Savannah.

Savannah, you see, once was a Christmas present for a U.S. president. Toward the end of the Civil War, Sherman not only had taken Atlanta, he had burned it. His forces then headed southeast for Savannah and the sea, leaving a wake of destruction behind. A major point in the line of defenses was Fort Jackson, three miles from the heart of Savannah. But a Union blockade of the port, malaria, former slaves now fighting against the South, and Northern superiority in numbers and military hardware had taken their toll. Savannah was almost certainly doomed for destruction.

Confederate General P. G. T. Beauregard came to the rescue, ironically, by pulling the soldiers out. He ordered his troops to build pontoon bridges across the Savannah River and cross into South Carolina, destroying the bridges behind them. The Confederate Navy boated others over, covered the Army's retreat with ironclad warships and scuttled the vessels.

Sherman was greeted by a delegation of civilians not quite handing him the key to the city, but surrendering without resistance. The Union general then sent a telegram to Abraham Lincoln saying, "I beg to present you as a Christmas gift the city of Savannah . . ." The message reached the president on Christmas Eve.

This started a tradition of sorts, because Savannah today offers itself as a kind of Christmas present to the world.

This is the town that James Edward Oglethorpe helped found in 1733 as a refuge for British debtors, a buffer zone between Spanish Florida and British settlements in South Carolina, and a garden where experimental plantings could draw on botanists' finds from all over the world. He also established a town plan, said to have been modeled after China's Peking, that contributes to Savannah's personality today.

Oglethorpe laid the town out in a neat grid, organized around a series of 24 squares, each a small park. The 20 squares that remain, bordered by residences and public buildings, now offer neighborhood identity. They contain monuments and benches, and invariably feature majestic oak trees with outstretching branches lavishly draped with Spanish moss. They also provide direction. Ask where a historic house is located and you're usually given the adjacent square's name, or told something like north two squares."

Savannah is said to have the largest National Historic Landmark district in the United States -- about 2.2 square miles of gorgeous, gracious homes, from mansions open to the public to private residences that can be town houses, row houses or simpler structures. Some are served by front stairs leading to elevated entrances that lend a distinctive charm. The houses are Colonial, Federal, Victorian and other styles, many saved and restored thanks to the work of the Historic Savannah Foundation.

Many of the historic houses, now museums, are decorated and have Christmas programs. Visit the birthplace of Juliette Gordon Low, for example, during its 'Christmas with the Gordons 1870" program, and you can gain insight into the founder of the Girl Scouts of the U.S.A. You know she came from spirited stock when a staffer in Victorian costume confides that "Daisy's" 81-year-old mother, given just days to live and instructed by the family doctor not to use the stairs, slid down the bannister instead.

An annual living history program features a candlelight visit with members of the Gordon family, as portrayed by staff members and volunteers. Other times the house itself is the sole attraction, open for visitors to enjoy not only the Victorian atmosphere but the authentic Christmas trim. Here you'll see only a tiny Christmas tree, appropriate for the era, rather than the full-scale versions elsewhere in town.

Full-scale trees in Savannah belong to a later era, and sometimes have a local motif. At Ships of the Sea maritime museum, a tree is festooned with locally found sea horses, sand dollars and starfish.

Wreaths and other decorations appearing on mantels, fences and doorways around town may have a distinctly Southern flair. In this temperate climate, where the mean temperature hovers around 50 degrees in December and can easily hit the upper 60s, evergreens don't last as long as up North. You'll find evergreens both real and contrived in Savannah, but you'll also find grapevine or straw or corn husks fashioned into wreaths, often wrapped with ribbon and decorated with Christmas berries, cotton bolls and more. Shops such as the Mulberry Tree on West Charlton take pride in presenting indigenous Southern items such as those and others, including popcorn wreaths. The popcorn" is the "flower" on branches from the Chinese tallow tree, introduced to this country by Benjamin Franklin, who gave some seeds to Noble Jones to plant.

Noble Jones, one of Georgia's first settlers, came to Savannah around 1736. He eventually built a fortified house, its walls constructed of tabby: equal parts of lime, ground from oyster shells; sand; and whole pieces of oyster shells. A 1741 Christmas celebration is re-enacted annually at Wormsloe Historic Site, in a realistic setting near the museum (open year-round). People in Colonial costume prepare plum pudding and mince pies, and carry in the yule log decorated in holly and Christmas berries. Visitors can compete with "Colonials" in a tomahawk-throwing competition. They can experience 18th century Christmas customs in an outdoor area that represents a home site and work area a short distance from the ruins of the original Noble Jones house.

Skip ahead in time to the 19th century, and visitors can experience Fort Jackson's "Christmas 1864" program. In addition the re-creation of the evacuation, the fort is the site of cannon firings, troop camps and oyster roasts throughout December. Groups can book Low Country (tidewater) suppers at the fort, enjoying stews, seafood and more, prepared with traditional local recipes.

Savannah's ties are to the Low Country area, and its rivers and marshland connect the city to the sea. The port is constant host to 800-foot ships stacked high with huge metal containers, which are loaded directly onto semitrailers or railroad flatcars.

All other activity seems to stop along River Street when one of the mammoth container vessels glides majestically past, near the shops and restaurants nestled into former cotton warehouses along the Savannah River.

Occasionally a freight train adds to the spectacle, running on its tracks right down the middle of cobblestoned River Street, its sound system blaring Christmas music, the engineer waving and the engine adorned with Christmas trim.

Although the downtown area is well suited to walking, a scenic guided tour is recommended, by van or horse-drawn carriage. The tours orient the visitor to the sights and the street plan, and in mid-December the invitation is hard to resist.

Christmas present, as well as Christmas past, can be experienced in Savannah with a self-guided tour of historic houses. Savannah Downtown Neighborhood Association members open their lavishly and elegantly decorated homes to holiday visitors during one weekend every December.

For more information write Savannah Area Convention & Visitors Bureau, 222 W. Oglethorpe Ave., Savannah, Ga. 31499, or phone (800) 444-2427 or (912) 944-0456.

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