Christmas in Colonial
Two large torches burn
brightly into the night atop 10-foot cressets, or poles, in front of the
Governor's Palace in Colonial Williamsburg, Virginia on Christmas Eve.
Visitors stand shivering in the crisp night air anxiously awaiting the
start of a special candlelight tour of the Governor’s Palace in Colonial
Williamsburg. Were it not for people in modern dress, the scene could be
taking place in 1770, in the Royal Colony of Virginia.
The Governor, himself comes out to greet his guests and personally
escorts them on a tour of his home, all festooned in holiday greenery
and aglow with the light of hundreds of candles. The staff has
decoratively laid out holiday foods and a string quartet plays a Baroque
melody in the ballroom.
Englishmen who came to the American colonies brought along their
cultural traditions. Their Christmas, like those of the English manors,
evolved as an interval of leisure to enjoy feasting, visiting, dancing,
The candlelight Palace tour is but one of a myriad of events that extend
throughout the holiday season in Colonial Williamsburg. Christmas in
Williamsburg is perennially popular, perhaps because it's unlike
celebrations anywhere else in the country. The 173-acre Historic Area is
one of the only ones open on Christmas Day--eight to ten buildings are
open for tours. Also, with its full schedule of special programs,
concerts, plays, and yuletide banquets available, it’s possible for you
to have a complete colonial Christmas holiday. An infectious comradery
prevails in the historic area throughout the holiday season, bringing a
real warmth and vitality not often experienced elsewhere.
begins here on the day of the Grand Illumination, held the Sunday of the
first weekend of December. In the 18th century, residents of
Williamsburg held illuminations—the firing of guns and the lighting of
fireworks—to celebrate major events such as the commemoration of the
birth of the reigning sovereign, great military victories, or the
arrival of a new colonial governor. Today during this free public event,
a cannon blast signals the lighting of hundreds of candles in the
windows of the town's more than 400 restored buildings. An evening of
merriment follows, replete with 18th-century-style fireworks displays at
three locations within the Historic Area—the Capitol, Magazine, and
Governor’s Palace. Before the fireworks, visitors gather for singing and
dancing, and watching musical performances on outdoor stages throughout
the Historic Area.
unique door decorating contest brings forth the best Colonial
Williamsburg has to offer during the holidays. All decorations must be
of natural materials, according to colonial traditions. Doorways
decorated with boxwood wreaths adorned with osage orange, okra pods, and
variegated holly add a festive touch. A Christmas Decorations Walking
Tour, held twice daily from December 5 to 26, including Christmas Day.
At 6 P.M. each evening from December 17 to 24, visitors can watch the
lighting of the cressets—a metal cup or basket, often mounted to or
suspended from a pole, containing oil, pitch, or a rope steeped in rosin
or something flammable—along Duke of Gloucester Street. These were the
first street lamps. Strolling musicians add to the festive holiday
holiday is complete without feasting. When it came to excessive eating
and drinking during the Christmas season, Englishmen and colonial
Virginians had much in common. A sumptuously spread Christmas table had
long been a mark of status in Great Britain and it was no less true in
America. Colonial gentry, like their English counterparts, imitated the
aristocratic penchant for dining tables crowded with food. A family's
reputation rose with the number of dishes presented. Twenty or 30 per
course, all precisely ordered around a centerpiece of meats or desserts,
wasn’t thought excessive.
Visitors may choose to dine with city folk In Colonial Williamsburg's
eight restaurants and taverns, where a series of feasts help ring in
Christmas colonial style. One of the most unique is The Groaning Board,
so called because the display of foods is so bounteous that the table is
said to "groan" under the weight of it! Held five times throughout the
month of December at Williamsburg Lodge, it offers a feast of holiday
favorites, accompanied by traditional entertainment, including
balladeers, fifes and drums, and madrigal singers.
Colonial Williamsburg is one of the only historic areas open on
Christmas Day. While only select buildings are open, there are enough to
provide several hours of enjoyment. Visitors can stroll through historic
trade shops, enjoy hot cider, and see hand-crafted gingerbread houses.
The list of holiday-themed events is extensive. The festive decorations
and timeless charm of Colonial Williamsburg helps set the stage for an
unforgettable holiday experience.
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