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Christmas in Colonial Williamsburg
Bob Brooke


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, and games.

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.

Christmas 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.

A 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 atmosphere.

No 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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