Historical Holiday

A Visit to Colonial Williamsburg Brings Simplicity, Serenity to the Season

By Lisa Perez | Photography by Colonial Williamsburg Foundation | Posted on 12.19.13 – Destinations, History, People & Places, Travel

The seat of government in Colonial Virginia was the Capitol Buidling, shown in the gathering dusk of a cold winter's night. Patrick Henry, George Washington, Thomas Jefferson and other patriots came here to speak out against the English government.
Lanterns and torches illuminate the streets, just like in the past.
The Grand Illumination starts the Colonial Williamsburg Christmas, held the first weekend in December. A fife and drum parade starts the festivities through the center of town, ending with the crowd singing carols.
The Governor's Palace is decked in holiday greenery and candles in all the windows.

Christmas in the United States looks nearly identical in all our towns. Decorated wreaths on the door, ornate cards filling the mailbox, special cookies and numerous trips to the mall with its continuing loop of Christmas music are everywhere and so, too, is the effort of making all that happen in just a few short weeks. Do we sometimes long for a simpler era? How about a day without all the holiday trappings that we love and resent at the same time?

This year consider a trip back in time to Colonial Williamsburg, Va., to celebrate the holiday season. A short three-hour drive from Frederick down through the rolling Virginia countryside brings you to this amazing town. Restored in the 1930s by the Rockefeller Foundation, Williamsburg showcases much of what we know of Colonial times before we became a nation. As a result of this renovation, original buildings from the 17th and 18th centuries have been repaired and others replicated, giving us the historical town we visit today.
In addition to Williamsburg, there are many other attractions in this southeastern corner of Virginia, including Busch Gardens theme park, Ripley’s Believe It or Not! museum and the Jamestown Settlement replications. You can stay for the day or several days; there’s plenty to do.

The celebration begins with the fife and drum parade. The players are local youth and a band that has been playing at Williamsburg for the past 50 years.

Lodging is readily available. Two inns are on the Colonial Williamsburg grounds themselves, but there are many other hotels in the area. Eating establishments are also numerous and cover every
possible taste.

The Grand Illumination ushers in the Colonial Williamsburg Christmas, a spectacular event scheduled for the first weekend of December that features lights, fireworks and a parade through the middle of town, once the capital of Colonial Virginia. The celebration begins with the fife and drum parade. The players are local youth and a band that has been playing at Williamsburg for the past 50 years. As the procession ends, an invitation to sing Christmas carols presents itself and we grab the chance to sing with the other folks standing there.

Keep in mind that almost everything in Williamsburg is done the way it used to be done. We realize this as we wait for the Illumination to, well, illuminate. The lighting is not electrical so there’s no sudden show of light. Rather, as the candles and fires are lit and the fireworks set off, the Illumination grows and shines in the evening.

Williamsburg brings the past to life with the many “interpreters” posted throughout the streets and in the shops. Dressed in the garb of the era, these folks know their subject matter well and are informative on just about anything that we can think to ask.

In the 18th century, Grand Illuminations were light displaysmade to commemorate special events such as a military victory, the arrival of the governor, his wife or another dignitary, or to mark an important birth. Many other Colonial towns celebrated special occasions with Illuminations, too; thus it was not specifically a Williamsburg tradition, nor was it solely a holiday event.
Now, as we stroll through the town, we see the printer shop, a card shop and various taverns and stores. Williamsburg brings the past to life with the many “interpreters” posted throughout the streets and in the shops. Dressed in the garb of the era, these folks know their subject matter well and are informative on just about anything that we can think to ask.
We start our tour with the Capitol Building, which was Virginia’s government seat. Patrick Henry, George Washington, Thomas Jefferson and other patriots came to the Capitol to speak out against the English government. Here also there were parties and balls to mark the holidays and entertain.

As we leave the Capitol and continue our walk, we hear people on the street corner, sharing Colonial viewpoints and insights on the French and Indian War, George Washington and the local militia. At Chownings Tavern, we pause for lunch. Chownings first opened in the 1700s. As we sip the root beer specially made from an old recipe, our waitress,as informative as all the other interpreters, tells us about the tavern and Christmas in that long ago time. “Decorations were mostly ribbons and wreaths. Fresh food was used in the wreaths, but it was usually stale food and used to feed the birds and animals during that cold and hungry time of year,” she says.

We pass the stocks (with the usual jokes) and arrive at gardens and pasture. We can even see sheep grazing in a field in town. Horses work, as they did for so many centuries, delivering humans to their destinations.

Across the street are a nest of several shops and we explore them all. The sign outside one establishment, a ship, indicates that it deals in exports and imports. We enter the aromatic shop to examine the merchandise. Curiously, we gaze around us. The shopkeeper talks about Christmas celebrations 250 years ago. “The Twelve Days of Christmas was the focal point of the holidays back then. Each day was merrier than the last,” he says. The emphasis was the parties, the fox hunts, the balls and the fun. No Santa Claus, reindeer and iPods under a Christmas tree. In fact, children were not involved in the festivities. These were adult affairs. Gift-giving was not the holiday’s high point as it is now, the shopkeeper continues. “If gifts were given, the head of the house was the one that dispensed them to his children and servants. Gifts were not exchanged between children or peers, nor were children expected to give a gift to their parents,” he says.

Marriages also took place during the Twelve Days of Christmas, which lasted from Dec. 25 until Jan. 5. One’s family and friends were already gathered together, making it the right time to transact all sorts of business. A famous couple, George and Martha Washington, were married on January 6, 1759, at the end of one such annual festivity.

We continue towards the opposite end of town and reach the Governor’s Palace where seven royal governors lived. The last one, Lord Dunmore, evacuated his family in 1775, concerned for their safety as he observed the Colonial rebellion escalating. After independence was declared in 1776, two more governors followed him. Both Patrick Henry and Thomas Jefferson resided at the Governor’s Palace and it was Jefferson, the last occupant, who suggested the capital be moved to Richmond in 1780, as the Revolutionary War swirled around them. The next year the original mansion burned down and the Civil War completed the destruction of the property. In the 20th century, restorations were painstakingly done, by using drawings made by Jefferson, as well as contemporary engravings and records. The building impresses us with its detailed and elaborate appointments. We pass walls of old weapons lining the halls, portraits looking down on us and period furniture in all the rooms. As always, the interpreters fill in the details of a long ago family and time.

The spectacular Grand Illumination shares the weekend with the Annual Christmas Homes tour. Christmas decorations adorn the colonial homes, displaying beautiful ornaments and inspiring ideas in the minds of the beholders. That same weekend, several different concerts are scheduled. Holiday meals at the local taverns make a full weekend for the traveler. The contemporary 21st century Williamsburg Christmas combines many different traditions starting with Colonial and Revolutionary times and sweeping through Victorian times to our present day gala celebrations. We came away, our eyes filled with the scenes of a bygone era and ready to return some other holiday season.