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A Williamsburg Christmas

May 2024
5min read

At 5:30 P.M. on December 14, along the dimly lit length of the Duke of Gloucester Street, thousands of people wait. Suddenly cannons boom out, making explosions of light and sound in the quiet evening air; a series of noisy, smoky musket volleys come from the militiamen stationed around the arsenal; and at this signal, lights simultaneously flicker on all over the city. In every window of every house a white candle is lighted, and flares stuck in the ground flame up to mark the entrances to the public buildings. It is the Grand Illumination, the ceremony that signals the beginning of Colonial WiIliamsburg’s Christmas fortnight.

Soon bonfires appear here and there around the historic district, and the Fife and Drum Corps, as it parades along the Duke of Gloucester Street, pipes out traditional songs like “Soldier’s Wedding.” Everywhere you hear music—carolers, madrigal singers, the eerie sound of a lone bagpiper. The area immediately around the musicians is lighted by a cresset, a tall torch with a basket-shaped top, fueled with pitch pine. While a fiddler beats out the tunes, dancers swirl and circle in traditional patterns of two-century-old dances.

Several hours later the festivities end with fireworks of the eighteenth-century type—not so high-soaring as the modern variety but set off in denser patterns, and mostly white. Some are arranged along the front of a house to look like fountains, while rockets shoot up over the rooftop, making a tableau of light around the building itself. With these pyrotechnics the Grand Illumination is over. Williamsburg visitors love it. It is the most popular event of the Christmas season, which itself is one of Colonial Williamsburg’s greatest attractions.

Of course, tourists come to experience the eighteenth century at Williamsburg throughout the year. This most ambitious example of historic restoration in the United States covers 173 acres and includes more than 300 buildings, 88 of them original and the rest meticulously rebuilt on their actual sites. Public structures, private houses, shops, and taverns all serve to illustrate how this capital of the Virginia colony lived and worked in the years before American independence.

For Christmas, people reserve rooms months in advance, and Williamsburg officials report that some families have spent part of their Christmas vacation in the historic town for up to twenty years in a row, grown children gathering from all over the country and bringing their own children to attend the WiIliamsburg Christmas. As many as twenty thousand people come for the Grand Illumination alone.

But if the popularity of this celebration of light is beyond question, its historical accuracy is not. As members of the Anglican Church, seventeenth- and eighteenth-century Virginians didn’t abhor the holiday as the Puritans in New England did, but details of their observances are scarce. The curators and historians who help plan events at WiIliamsburg rely on what can be seen in prints, paintings, and drawings as well as on the data contained in old letters, diaries, newspapers, and public records. Unfortunately the frequent fires that plagued all the early colonies destroyed much of the historical evidence.

As Williamsburg’s early colonists were almost entirely English (except for slaves), it is probable that they brought their English Christmas customs with them. One of those customs was to celebrate the birthdays of kings and important holidays with illuminations and the shooting of muskets to “make a joyful noise.”

Holiday visitors to Williamsburg are also intrigued by the decorations that adorn the buildings during the Christmas fortnight. Last year, for instance, most of the seven hundred inquiries that came about the holiday season asked about the wreaths, sprays, plaques, fans, cones, pyramids, and “kissing balls”—clusters of greens and red berries used as we now use mistletoe.

Again there isn’t too much historical data to guide the Williamsburg decorators. “We know they liked symmetry,” Libbey Hodges Oliver, the supervisor of the Williamsburg flower-arrangement section, says, “and we elaborate on what they did to make the buildings festive.” The materials are all natural: added to the usual greens—ivy, cedar, balsam, boxwood—are fruits—apples, lemons, limes, pomegranates, kumquats, pineapples (the traditional symbol of hospitality)—as well as holly, mistletoe, and pine cones. But it is the unusual materials that create the most appealing effects —dried artichokes, yarrow flowers and okra pods, cotton bolls, empty and full, milkweed, sweet gum balls, magnolia and lotus pods, chinaberry clusters, dried hot red peppers, and Osage oranges. The flower arrangers collect materials throughout the fall, drying flowers and plants, and the actual decorating work begins about the first of December.

The Virginia colonists did not have Christmas trees. In fact, the first record of such a tree in Williamsburg dates from 1842, when a German classics professor at the College of William and Mary, Charles Minnigerode, decorated one for some children. Nowadays a large Norwegian spruce that grows at the edge of Market Square green is lighted on Christmas Eve—an unhistoric event but one appreciated by both local residents and tourists.

In eighteenth-century Williamsburg, residents would have attended service and taken the sacrament in Bruton Parish Church, which has been in continuous use since 1715. It was the rector of Bruton Parish, Rev. W. A. R. Goodwin, who persuaded John D. Rockefeller, Jr., in 1926, to finance the restoration of Williamsburg (see “My Gawd, They’ve Sold the Town,” August/September 1981 issue of American Heritage). The pews are marked with the names of important worshipers who sat in them, including four Presidents of the United States —Washington, Jefferson, Madison, and Tyler. Slaves sat in the balcony, which, as I was told when I went to a candlelight concert there, is now recognized as the best place to see the building and hear the music.

Slaves and servants who could be spared had a day off from work, and families often gave them small presents of money, food, or clothing to mark the holiday. But except for Christmas Day itself, the holidays were a time for parties in colonial Virginia. A children’s tutor at one of the large nearby plantations, Philip Vickers Fithian, wrote in his diary in December 1773, “Nothing is now to be heard of in conversation, but the Balls , the Fox-hunts , the fine entertainments , and the good fellowship , which are to be exhibited at the approaching Christmas .”

Food and drink, music and games were essential ingredients in creating this good fellowship. Colonial Williamsburg today provides them all during the Christmas fortnight. Foods may be the Baron’s Feast, the Yuletide Supper, or the New Year’s Eve Collation—all traditional menus served in Williamsburg restaurants. It may be hard to find arrack or syllabub, drinks that the colonists favored, but the wines, beer, and cider that they drank are readily available. In eighteenth-century Virginia the study of music was considered an important social refinement, and during the holidays today music is everywhere—from strolling carolers and musicians to minstrels singing ballads in the restaurants to recorder groups and quartets. In Bruton Parish Church there is chamber music as well as organ recitals and choir singing. (The “true method of singing” Psalms was taught at the College of William and Mary in the 170Os.) The season’s most formal concerts are evening performances at the Governor’s Palace. The musicians, in their eighteenth-century dress, play on instruments like those the colonists actually used; and the lighting is by candle, soft and lovely. I was intrigued to note that the conductor sits rather than stands before the orchestra, which apparently was the custom at the time.

Christmas was celebrated with the shooting of muskets to “make a joyful noise.”

The gentlemen of colonial Virginia were avid bowlers, and the game is played on a bowling green in Williamsburg today. There are also barrel-racing contests to watch, and the pole climb, in which four young men try to climb a greased pole to capture the purse full of prize money at the top. At the Abby Aldrich Rockefeller Folk Art Center there is a full program of children’s events (not necessarily of eighteenth-century lineage). Most popular are the museum dollhouses and a train—modeled after a toy in the collection—that children can ride in.

It is not hard to understand why Colonial Williamsburg, this family-oriented restoration of an important piece of America’s past, draws a million tourists a year. Nor is it hard to see why a visit to Williamsburg during the Christmas fortnight holds a particular enchantment for so many Americans.


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