Fancy decorations, lavish parties, or insane shopping frenzies are not a part of Colonial Williamsburg during the Christmas season. The holiday time is almost muted, with simple celebrations that seem more thoughtful than festive. Maybe for that reason, Christmas seems, well more Christmasy here.
Nevertheless, the Christmas season in Williamsburg begins with a bang – not to mention lots of lights and tradition-at the Grand Illumination. Held on the first Sunday in December, the Illumination is an 18th-century fireworks display that takes place simultaneously at the Governor’s Palace and the Capitol buildings at either end of the city. The crowds cheer as the buildings are lit by the glow of the fireworks.
Afterwards, it’s back to quieter pursuits. In fact, the streets of Williamsburg don’t appear very different during December than they do at any other time of year. The residents of the 18th-century city would probably be surprised at the decorations we have. Of course, there weren’t any outdoor lighting displays, but wreaths and other door decorations were uncommon, too. In Colonial times, only a few sprigs of holly were placed in windows. As a concession to modern times, though, wreaths and garlands are hung on doors and placed in corners of windows of restored houses and shops. Shop owners follow strict rules about what can be used in the decorations: only plants, fruits, nuts, and natural materials from Colonial times are allowed.
It was equally simple inside the home. Christmas trees did not show up until the 1800s. A few simple swags of evergreens hung over interior doorways, while a single candle shone in windows at night. Flickering candle flames now light the way for several nighttime tours of Colonial Williamsburg.
Special nighttime tours lead you through the darkened town and into three homes to show how the common folk prepared for the holiday. You watch three staged vignettes that present a very human side of the holiday. In the first, a merchant and his wife discuss how pleased they are at having more business and how they are looking forward to visits from friends. In the second, the parlor of a rich man’s house, a workman is bemused at the demands of the gentry while a city slave tells how much he misses his wife who lives on a rural plantation. In the outbuilding behind the house, the other slaves look upon the holiday as nothing more than a heavier workload.
While you’re only a spectator during that tour, you can be part of the celebration at the Burgesses’ Ball, which takes place at the Capitol building. The year is 1769, and a ball to honor the royal governor is underway. Throughout the building, there’s entertainment and activity. You can join in a hand of whist and catch up on the latest Colonial gossip (including some really juicy speculation about a romance between a couple from different social and political strata) or move to the other side of the room where a member of the House of Burgesses is discussing the growing political tension between the colony and Mother England. He’s confident that the King and Parliament will bee the folly of their actions toward Virginia and the other colonies.
When you grow weary of the conversations, there is dancing in the hall where the burgesses meet. Stately minuets are performed with almost painful precision. After a while, the dancers switch to country rigs and reels, the Colonial version of country-western line dancing. Modern-day guests are invited to join in.
Feasts and Faux Pas
Entertainment was important for the early Virginians, whose social standing was determined in part by their displays of hospitality – especially what foods they served and how heavily they loaded the table. The Crown of the Turtle Feast at the Kings Arms Tavern is a sample of Colonial holiday dining. Traditional dishes – hot buttered rum, relishes, Sally Lunn bread, sweet potatoes, and sour cherry trifle, among others – are served along with less authentic, but tasty entrees, such as medallions of veal.
The highlight of the evening, though, is the Procession of the Pig. A roasted boar’s head, complete with an apple in its mouth, is marched through the tavern to the accompaniment of songs by a pair of minstrels. While you can see this at the tavern, it’s one Colonial Williamsburg Christmas tradition that hasn’t survived to most modern households. Another is the custom of firing guns and cannon to mark major celebrations.
Getting the most from your visit to Williamsburg during the Christmas season is easier if you have a flexible schedule. On weekend, the historical area is very crowded. Lines are long, the walking tours fill quickly, and it can be difficult to get reservations at taverns. During the week, however, it’s another story. The village is quiet, the shops are nearly empty, and – except for special events such as the Crown of the Turtle Feast – dinner reservations are generally not a problem.
It also means you can take advantage of several special accommodation plans that let you stay in the historic district. Spending the night in one of the restored houses and looking out on a scene that would be familiar to Patrick Henry gives a visit to Williamsburg a depth that you won’t experience at many other historic sites.
(Originally published in AAA Car & Travel, Mid-Atlantic edition)