Up and down the Eastern Seaboard - and all around the country - historic-house museums will soon be welcoming visitors to the yuletides of years gone by.
Fussy Victorian mansions, simple little cottages, majestic Colonial estates, regal old town houses, and sophisticated homes of America's early rich - each promises the color and enjoyment of its special era. There is the soft gleam of candlelight. The pungent aroma of greens is everywhere. Old-time foods and libations add delicious cheer. The lovely strains of a familiar carol or a harp and harpsichord melody fill the air with joyous holiday spirit. The old house is , more than ever, as it was meant to be: a real home.
A visit to any one of these remarkable buildings, especially through the holiday weeks, can easily become an annual family outing as traditional as plum pudding and mistletoe. This is a sampling of houses that open their doors wide to guests. If none are conveniently located for you, a check of the local newspaper or call to the county or state office of cultural and historic affairs can lead the way to a nearby historic home, festive in sparkling yuletide dress.
Tryon Palace in New Bern, N.C., is a 40-room, Georgian-style masterpiece. It was designed in the 1700s by English architect John Hawks as the Colonial capital and home for the royal governor, William Tryon, and his family. Now restored to its former splendor, the palace is a living example of the fashionable tastes of the day.
As visitors discover Christmas here, candles light the way, and there are delicate airs of harpsichord music. The holiday decorations tend to be formal, ornate, and majestic. The mahogany staircase in the Great Stairs Hall is festooned with bright green pine roping, which climaxes at the newel post with an elaborate pairing of magnolia leaves and fruit.
Boscobel, in Garrison, N.Y., was built in 1804 by States Morris Dyckman for his bride. It is a Federal-style showplace with the graceful lines and delicacy of a wedding cake. Inside, the elegant furnishings of the early-19th-century New York Federal style are enhanced by the silver, china, and glass selected in London long ago by Dyckman.
Through the holiday season, Boscobel is candlelit. And every room is decked with garlands of greens, fruits, nuts, flowers, and potted plants.
In the dining room, the three-part Duncan Phyfe mahogany table is set with sweetmeats, tarts, nuts, and a variety of other delicacies arranged around three Chinese-export punch bowls.
Candlelight tours and, in the dining room, a trio of musicians playing appropriate airs on the flute, harp, and harpsichord are part of the celebration at Boscobel.
At Decatur House in Washington, D.C., there is an early 19th-century Christmas celebration and there are late Victorian decorations and festivities. One marks the years when Commodore Stephen Decatur, hero of the US expeditions against the Barbary pirates, lived here. The other is typical of the 1870s, when Gen. Edward Fitzgerald Beale was the last of many Decatur House residents. This distinguished, late Federal-style town house, across Lafayette Park from the White House, was designed in 1818-19 by the renowned architect Benjamin Henry Latrobe.
Through the 137 years of its history, it was home for such illustrious personages as Decatur, Henry Clay, Martin Van Buren, and finally General Beale. Now a property of the National Trust for Historic Preservation, the house has been carefully restored and furnished in the style of the day.
The understated decorations of the early 19th century are resplendent in the downstairs rooms of Decatur House. Greens are draped on the mantelpieces, arranged in vases and used as centerpieces, often together with fruits such as apples, oranges, lemons, limes, and pineapples.
Through the rooms, pine roping is garlanded around doorways, mirrors, paintings, stair rails, and mantels. Greens are shaped into stars, wreaths, and imaginative shapes to dress up walls and doors. Boxwood and mistletoe ''kissing balls'' are prominently hung. And a mix of greens and magnolia leaves - perhaps with a few roses tucked in - are table centerpieces.
Washington Irving, America's great man of letters, enjoyed nothing better than an English Christmas. His enthusiastic description of these customs in ''The Sketch Book'' helped to popularize many of the traditions that are now taken for granted: evergreen wreaths, the yule log, caroling, and a sumptuous Christmas dinner.
An Old World Christmas continues to be celebrated at Sunnyside in Tarrytown, N.Y., where Irving lived from 1835 to 1857, which he regarded fondly as a ''little old fashioned stone mansion all made up of gable ends and as full of angles and corners as an old cocked hat.''
Holly and ivy are massed everywhere in the house. The dining room table is set in gala holiday style with a white cloth, china, and Irving's monogrammed silver. A red satin ribbon encircles the table.
For visitors, there are candlelight tours, festive period music, and hot spiced cider and cookies for all. Practical information
Tryon Palace is in New Bern, N.C., at the intersection of US 17 and US 70. The Christmas season begins on Saturday, Dec. 10, and continues through Wednesday, Dec. 21; hours are 9:30 a.m. to 4 p.m., Mondays through Saturdays; 1: 30 to 4 p.m., Sundays. Candlelight tours will be offered Dec. 10, 11, 13, 15, 17 , and 18 from 5 to 8 p.m. Admission is $4 for adults, $1 for children. Detailed information and reservations are available from Tryon Palace, Box 1007, New Bern , N.C. 28560. Telephone: (919) 638-5109.
Christmas Candlelight Tours at the Boscobel Restoration (Route 9-D, Garrison, N.Y.) begin on Friday, Dec. 16, and continue through Sunday, Dec. 18, from 5 to 7 p.m. each day. Decorations will be in place from Dec. 17 through Dec. 27 from 9:30 a.m. to 4 p.m. (The last tour begins at 3:30 p.m.) Admission is $4 for adults, $2 for children. Children under 6 are admitted free.
Decatur House (748 Jackson Place NW, Washington, D.C.) will host special Christmas programs (tour, music, and refreshments) on Sunday, Dec. 11, and Sunday, Dec. 18, from 2 to 4 p.m. and on Friday, Dec. 16, from 7 to 9 p.m.. Admission is $3. Regular hours at Decatur House are Tuesday through Friday, 10 a.m. to noon; Saturday and Sunday from noon to 4 p.m. Closed on Mondays and on Christmas Day. Admission is $2.
Sunnyside is one of three restored sites at the Sleepy Hollow Restorations, 150 White Plains Road in Tarrytown, N.Y. The other sites - also decorated for the holiday season - are the pre-Revolutionary Philipsburg Manor and the 1783- 1814 Van Cortlandt Manor.
Festivities begin at Sunnyside on Dec. 12 and continue through Dec. 28 from 10 a.m. to 5 p.m. each day. From 5 p.m. to 9 p.m. on Dec. 16, 17, and 18, visitors will be provided with lanterns to light their way down the winding path to Irving's home, where special candlelight tours will be conducted. For admission charges and detailed information about Christmas at Sunnyside write or call Sleepy Hollow Restorations, 150 White Plains Road, Tarrytown, N.Y. 10591. Telephone: (914) 631-8200.