Williamsburg Christmas: A Colonial Holiday Celebration

The Christmas season in Colonial Williamsburg is quietly festive and joyous. For the Virginia colonists, the holiday was part of the winter-long social season, when planters moved from their cold, isolated estates in the country to spend the winter in their comfortable homes in town near their friends. While Christmas was a welcome holiday, it was much more subdued and religious than today’s largely secular celebration. 

Throughout December, Williamsburg’s calendar is filled with events that let visitors experience the holiday as it was celebrated in the 18th century. The biggest is The Grand Illumination, held the first Saturday in December. All day, there are concerts and caroling, special meals at the taverns in the historic area, walking tours showcasing the decorations at the houses and public buildings, and demonstration drills by the colonial militia. As darkness falls, crowds gather near the Palace, Magazine, and Capitol for the “illumination.” That’s the quaint term for “fireworks.” Those were usually set off only for important civic occasions, like the royals’ birthdays, not a religious observance like Christmas. And given the technology of the times, they were modest by today’s standards. But while Williamsburg tries to stay authentic in most things, even the historians can’t resist finding an excuse for a good fireworks display. The skies over the historic town glitter and glow and echo with the booms as displays go off at all three locations.

The rest of December has a varied, rotating schedule of tours, programs, and activities throughout the week, so visitors can enjoy something different every day. While many of them charge admission, it’s usually modest – under $10. There’s a “Revolutionary Ball,” with participants learning the latest 18th century dances steps; a “Civil War Christmas,” showing how families managed to get through the holiday during that dark time; and “Crystal Carols,” a concert of familiar holiday music performed on the glass armonica, an instrument invented by Benjamin Franklin. The “Christmas at Home” walking tour is particularly moving; it’s a nighttime walk to several houses where performers stage vignettes showing how different classes viewed Christmas: the landed gentry, hired workmen, merchants, and slaves. At least one night each week, there is a nighttime “illumination.” No fireworks this time, but buildings, stores, and houses are lit with candles and burning braziers – 18th century street lighting, as the militia marches to fife and drum.

Christmas Eve is busy! There’s ceremonial firing of the muskets and cannon, the town tree lighting, and free entertainment at the Capitol: period dancing and refreshments. More concerts on Christmas Day, along with groaning boards at all of the taverns and restaurants.

There are plenty of packages for the season at the Williamsburg Lodge, Inn, and Woodlands. While they are all excellent places to stay and the packages are equally good, try to arrange to stay in one of the houses in the historic district. They have modern amenities, but when you look out your window at night, you’ll feel as though you’ve been transported back in time.

www.history.org is the official Williamsburg site. It has the events calendar and information on packages, tickets, and hotels.

(Photos courtesy of Virginia Tourism Corporation (Virginia.org) and Colonial Williamsburg.)

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