The holiday season in Colonial Williamsburg is a magical time, which hearkens back to a more gracious and simpler era. Candles flicker in the multi-pane windows. Natural wreaths adorn doors and windows. Buildings vie with each other for awards for the best decorations, a practice that fosters creativity.
Crowds fill the streets on the evening of the Grand Illumination held on the first Sunday each December. Special log torches (cressets) throughout the Historic Area light the scene with a romantic glow while locals and visitors listen to music and stroll among the restored buildings until the brilliant fireworks display ends the official celebration.
The streets in the historic district tend to be narrow, so the best advice is to leave your trailer at the campground. Large rigs are, however, easily accommodated at the visitor center lot. Limited paid parking lots scattered nearby fill up early, as do the free spaces on some streets, due to the packed events throughout the holidays.
From Thanksgiving until New Year’s, a calendar bulging with musical and dramatic entertainment makes every day special. Experience how the colonists celebrated with song, dance and food. Candlelight programs of dancing and music in the Governor’s Palace, Bruton Parish Church and the Capitol building; meals, games and period entertainment in the taverns; evening walks; and ghost tours through the softly lit streets all leave special December memories. At an unusual musical experience, a Crystal Concert, Dean Shostack plays glass instruments including the armonica, which was invented by Benjamin Franklin.
The clip-clop, clip-clop of horse hooves echoes along the streets just as it did when horse-drawn carriages transported people around this former capital of the Virginia Colony. As they do throughout the year, tradespeople wielding tools of the colonial era create items for everyday use and for decoration, including special exhibits at the worthwhile museums of folk art and decorative arts. Christmas Decorations Walking Tours leave from the Greenhow Store office four times daily.
Be sure to allow some time for holiday shopping during your visit. Specialty stores featuring 18th-century merchandise plus present-day art and treasures combine for a wide selection. Shoppers could spend a day seeking bargains at the huge outlet mall a short drive from the historic area.
New Year’s Eve’s First Night celebration officially brings the Yuletide season to a close. At venues in the College of William and Mary campus entertainers present short programs throughout the evening as attendees are free to move from one to another — an ideal family celebration to welcome the new year. Colorful bursts of fireworks illuminate the night sky as the old year ends.
When you spend part of your holiday immersed in the 18th century, you will understand why Christmas is Colonial Williamsburg’s biggest season. Available on request, a special Christmas publication can help you decide among the many events you want to attend.
But there’s more to Williamsburg than festive holiday celebrations. Perhaps the town’s biggest draw is its goal of education, which was added to the primary restoration effort of the city begun in 1926. It’s such an enjoyable way to learn by visiting with the interpreters in 18th-century surroundings. John D. Rockefeller, Jr. provided the funds for Dr. W. A. R. Goodwin’s vision to help future generations experience Virginia’s Colonial capital.
A phenomenon that strikes me each time I visit Colonial Williamsburg is how true to the times the interpreters stay. When asked a contemporary question by a guest, “Thomas Jefferson” replied that he never heard of that incident. On another occasion I was alarmed to hear several men shouting at each other in the midst of many visitors. Soon I realized they were acting their parts by disagreeing about the colony’s relationship with England, exactly what took place here before the revolution.
Like bookends on each end of mile-long Duke of Gloucester Street (referred to as DOG Street by locals) are the Wren Building of the College of William and Mary and the Capitol, where the British flag flies. Since this is closed to vehicular traffic, people stroll in the street as well as on the sidewalks. Large oxen with their caretakers periodically join the crowd.
The College of William and Mary, named for the British monarchs who granted its charter in 1693, boasts Revolutionary leaders as its alumni. George Washington studied surveying and later was its chancellor, and three other presidents — Thomas Jefferson, James Monroe and John Tyler — are alumni as well. In 1779 it became the first collegiate law school. Bruton Parish Church, in continuous service since 1715, rang its bell when the Declaration of Independence was signed in Philadelphia. Coincidentally, the bell came from the same foundry as the Liberty Bell. Today you can hear it chime before every service.
Viewed along expansive Palace Green, the spacious U-shaped Governor’s Palace includes gardens and outbuildings such as a kitchen and stable. After housing seven royal governors, it was home to Patrick Henry and Thomas Jefferson, the first and second governors of the state. Compare a trial at the Courthouse with today’s legal proceedings. Outside, the younger generation likes to be photographed with their heads in the pillory. Across the street sits the octagonal Magazine with its intricate fence. Climb the stairs for a short talk on weapons.
In Colonial times taverns were centers of political as well as social gatherings. Today’s visitors can partake of a meal in four of them; King’s Arms, Chowning’s, Christiana Campbell’s and Shields Tavern. The newest addition to Colonial Williamsburg, R. Charlton Coffeehouse, opened in November 2009 and was the first major undertaking in 50 years. In the 18th century, coffeehouses were more elegant eating and drinking establishments than taverns. Business was transacted there, news from the mother country was shared and with the seeds of revolution sown, political discussions were often fiery.
For 30 years programs on the life of 18th-century African Americans have been part of the Colonial Williamsburg experience. Their work, music and stories enrich a visit. With a costumed interpreter, tour homes of prominent Virginians furnished with period antiques and reproductions. Noteworthy is the George Wythe House on Palace Green, constructed of Flemish bond brickwork. Its outbuildings include a poultry house, dovecote, kitchen, smokehouse, stable, laundry and lumber house. Peyton Randolph’s wine-colored residence includes several outbuildings. He served as president of the Continental Congress in Philadelphia and Virginia’s House of Burgesses. In contrast with these more elegant homes is the James Geddy House, that of a tradesman. His silversmith shop is located beside his home with a foundry behind it, where tradesmen work in silver, bronze, pewter and brass.
Artisans and tradespeople eagerly share their crafts with visitors in smaller buildings scattered throughout the restored area. Heat from the blacksmith’s coal-fired forge spreads welcomed warmth on a cool winter day. Handmade shoes and boots dangle from the ceiling of the Shoemaker’s Shop, leather saddles and harnesses come from the Taliagerro-Cole Shop, and on the Wythe grounds basketmakers and weavers ply their craft.
This sampling of buildings and trades introduces visitors to the 18th-century life of a Southern city. Many of the buildings in the historic area are privately owned; these have a very small identifying sign on the door and can be admired from the outside only. A British flag posted outside a building denotes it is open for guests. Buildings rotate being open, so plan on staying several days to tour them all.
In Williamsburg, the foundations of the United States live for guests to appreciate the experiences and sacrifices of our forefathers. The motto “That the future may learn from the past” prompts continued exploration and excavation that adds to the knowledge and enjoyment of a visit. History here is not stagnant. During the Christmas season, lighting, music and revelry entertain visitors more than any other time. The atmosphere sparkles with fun and excitement.
Colonial Williamsburg, (800) 447-8679, www.colonialwilliamsburg.com.
Nearby RV Parks
American Heritage RV Park, (888) 530-2267, www.americanheritagervpark.com.
Anvil Campground, (800) 633-4442, www.anvilcampground.com.
Williamsburg KOA Campground (open March 1-December 1), (800) 562-1733, www.koa.com/where/VA/46111.
Williamsburg Pottery Campground, (757) 564-3326, www.williamsburgpottery.com.