“Yule” Sing Carols by Candlelight: Williamsburg at Christmas

Originally published in Recreation News

There were no Christmas trees, no Yule Logs, and certainly no Santa. In fact, for many of those living there, Christmas in Colonial Williamsburg was just another workday. But it was still a special season, one which the restored village commemorates every year.

The Christmas season officially begins on the first Sunday in December with the Grand Illumination. This 18th century fireworks display takes place simultaneously at the Governor’s Palace and Capitol Building at opposite ends of the historic district.

As early twilight settles across the town, costumed workmen light lanterns along the Palace Green and Duke of Gloucester Street. Carolers entertain with songs from the times. The singers are outnumbered and sometimes drowned out by the visitors. As many as 30,000 show up for the event. But it’s a congenial crowd that cheers its approval as the stately Palace and Capitol buildings are outlined by the glowing colors of the fireworks against the dark December sky.

Historically, Williamsburg was a bit unusual that it celebrated Christmas at all. IN most of the other colonies, celebrations were small and discrete. IN Puritan-dominated Massachusetts, having fun was viewed as a sin, so there went that chance to enjoy the holiday. In western Virginia, with its strong Presbyterian influence, clergy advised the faithful to be ‘calm and temperate’ and to simply go about their daily business. Only those places with a strong Anglican, Lutheran, Catholic, or Moravian presence saw much in the way of festivities.

Even those were much more solemn than we might think, at least at the beginning of the season. Christmas was not the frantic shopping and social celebration it is now. The observances at the beginning of December were mostly church services. The secular calendar did not start until after the 25th. Then, the mood shifted. The “12 Days of Christmas” – from Christmas until Epiphany – was a social time. Travel wasn’t easy, so when people got together, they made an event of it – a long event. Guests would stay for days, even weeks. December being a quiet time for farming and commerce, and Williamsburg being the political, social, and commercial center of the colony, everyone who want anyone traveled to town. There were weddings and dances and parties of every type.

Visitors can take part in some of them. The Burgess’ Ball, held at the Capitol, is an interactive re-creation of a dance held in honor of the Royal Governor. The year is 1769. Williamsburg is still part of a loyal colony, and the guests are proud to be British subjects. There are several areas where tourists mingle with interpreters who stay strictly in character. IN one you, you can join in a game of cards and hear the latest gossip, including some juicy speculation about a romantically involved couple whose families are not socially or economically compatible. You can also discuss the growing political tension between England and the colonies with members of the House of Burgesses.

Downstairs, in rooms where the Burgesses meet, there’s more entertainment. Chamber music drifts from one large hall. This isn’t background music to accompany casual conversation, but a serious recital. In another room, stately minuets are danced with well-practiced precision. When the formality grows burdensome, the dancers switch to country jigs and reels – the Colonial equivalent to country-western line dancing.

Visitors are sometimes invited to join in. They’ve had a chance to learn some of the steps earlier in the day. One of the regular demonstrations is a dance class taught at the Mary Sith Shop. There, interpreters explain how itinerant dance instructors traveled from plantation to plantation or established themselves in town to teach the upper class the steps that would show the world their good manners.

You’ll learn that the phrase “putting your best foot forward” comes from Colonial times. The men, very conscious of their legs, would start the dance by striking a pose that showed off their better-looking limb. Those who thought their legs looked a little scrawny in their stockings could buy padding to fill out their calves and give the ladies something to admire.

Scheduled tours and demonstrations are probably the best way to really understand life in the Colonial capital. The activities are night are particularly interesting. With fewer modern-day distractions or tourists to deal with, it’s easier to feel you are back in the period.

A candlelight “lanthorn” tour of the shops is typical. The guides tell stories about the shop owners and the shopping customs, while showing off artifacts usually tucked away during business hours. When it’s over, you’ll appreciate that the mile-long Duke of Glouster Street was an 18th century shopping mall, and that the retailers faced the same problems then that they do now – competition, location, advertising, taxation, and fussy customers.

You’ll also appreciate just how little light those candles give off. Trying to do anything after dark is a test you your night vision. Small wonder most colonists went to bed early.

That said, the one special Christmas walking tour that should not be missed visits three different buildings where staged vingettes show how servants, freemen, slaves, and merchants prepared for Christmas. For the merchant and his family, it’s a time for good business, entertainment, and a chance to help out some neighbors who aren’t faring well. For the tradesman, working to hang wallpaper in a wealthy man’s house by candlelight, it’s a chance to shake his head in bemusement at the priorities of the rich. For the city slave, it’s a frustrating time spent missing his wife, who lives on a rural plantation. For the other slaves and servants, it’s mostly just a time of extra work.

Wandering through the streets after dark brings other unexpected pleasures. At Bruton Parish Church, the organist practices for the holiday recital, the strains of the hymns filtering from the nearly dark building to echo hauntingly through the deserted streets.

As with any celebration, food is an important part of Christmas. The Crown of the Turtle Feast held at the Kings Arms Tavern features hot-buttered rum (perfect on a cold night), medallions of veal, sweet potatoes, and a sampler of relishes – corn, pickled watermelon rind, beans, and ham – as well as muffins, Sally Lunn bread, and a sour cherry trifle for dessert. It’s a menu adaptable to modern tables.

Wandering minstrels weave their way through the dining room, singing carols as they herald the highlight of the evening – the passage of a roasted boar’s head on a silver platter. It’s just as well that the room is dimly lit.

The Colonists would probably be astounded at the lavish decorations on our houses. In Colonial times, if there were any decorations at all, they were limited to simple sprigs of holly in the windows or swags of evergreens hung over inside doorways.

As a concession to modern times, the houses and shops are decorated with wreaths and other displays. However, there are strict rules about what materials can be used. Everything must be natural and only use materials available during the 18th century.

It’s amazing how much can be done with cherry laurel, apples, nuts, magnolia leave, pomegrantes, cotton puffs, juniper leave, even eggshells. Sweet-smelling wreaths hang from doors, clever swags rest in corners of windows. Ravenous squirrels looking for a quick snack are thwarted by the judicious application of Vicks Vapo-rub on the decorous foodstuffs. Ok, so not everything is authentic to the times.

On weekends, it seems as though everyone in Virginia still travels to Williamsburg for the season. The place is jammed, with lines to get into the shops and historic buildings as long as those at Disney World during Spring Break. If you can schedule your visit during the week, it’s an entirely different story. The village is almost deserted, and there are no lines, no waiting, and almost no need for reservations for meals at the historic taverns.

It’s also easier to get room reservations at the historic houses inside the restored district midweek. Spending a night in one of the buildings that Patrick Henry or Thomas Jefferson knew gives the Williamsburg experience a depth that few other historic places can match.