Colonial Williamsburg, the 18th-century living history museum in Virginia, officially prepares for the Christmas season beginning with the Grand Illumination, always held on the first Sunday of December. For 2014, a variety of events will be available throughout the day, Sunday, Dec. 7, ranging from guided tours through the homes and shops decorated for the season to live music popular during colonial times. Visitors can stroll through the streets and watch volunteers and staff in period dress light candles and torches or cressets as dusk falls. Following this, the Colonial Williamsburg Fifes and Drums perform signaling the fireworks scheduled for 7 p.m. The best viewing will be at the Capitol, Market Square, and Governor’s Palace.
Together with the Jamestown Settlement and Yorktown Victory Center, Colonial Williamsburg is part of America’s Historic Triangle combining restoration, reenactment, and re-creation. Williamsburg was the first capital of Virginia and a vibrant center for politics, culture and education from 1699 to 1780. After the capital was moved to Richmond, Williamsburg had a quieter role as home of the College of William and Mary.
Restoration of the historic buildings was the idea of a local church rector, the Reverend Dr. W.A.R. Goodwin. He secured the help of John D. Rockefeller, Jr., and in 1926, the preservation of Colonial Williamsburg began. The plans initially included a few of the buildings that had figured prominently in the history of the area, but the project expanded to 85 percent of the original size of 18th-century Williamsburg. By the time of Rockefeller’s death in 1960, more than 80 original structures had been restored through his generosity. In addition, he funded the reconstruction of several other buildings and the construction of visitor facilities.
The Colonial Williamsburg Christmas season explores the traditions of the 18th century, beginning with the Grand Illumination. Throughout the 301-acre area, buildings are decorated with garlands and wreaths made of evergreens and various fruits and berries. Oranges, holly berries, pine cones, cranberries, various nuts, apples and lemons add to the festive designs along porch, balcony, and stair railings, columns, doors, and windows. Pineapples symbolized hospitality and are often used as centerpieces.
One decoration that the buildings interpreting 18th-century history will not have is the Christmas tree. The German practice of decorating trees with ornaments was not introduced to Colonial Williamsburg until 1842 when one professor at William and Mary gave a tree to the children of another professor. However, other buildings that are not part of the colonial interpretation have Christmas trees with typical 19th-century decorations. Popcorn and berries were strung to make garland. Cinnamon sticks tied together, small cornucopias filled dried flowers and spices, decorated wooden spindles, sleigh bells, and delicate needlework were some of the items transformed into tree ornaments.
Celebrating Christmas in colonial Virginia included balls, parties, and visiting family and friends. Guests often came prepared to spend several days because of the distance they had traveled. Christmas morning meant families would go to church then enjoy a large dinner that would be followed by musical performances. The traditions of colonial Virginia blend with those of present day as Colonial Williamsburg celebrates the Christmas season beginning with the Grand Illumination and continuing throughout December. For more information about the Dec. 7 events, the website is listed below.
By Cynthia Collins
Colonial Williamsburg – Grand Illumination Schedule
Rountree, Susan Hight. Christmas Decorations From Williamsburg, The Colonial Williamsburg Foundation, 1991 (print)
All photos: courtesy of Colonial Williamsburg Foundation, Williamsburg, VA
Top photo is of Williamsburg Inn