Photography by Colonial Williamsburg Resort
T.S. Elliot once aptly described tradition as “how the vitality of the past enriches the life of the present.”
Most would agree that there’s no better time for traditions than the holiday season. And perhaps nowhere else in the country brings centuries-old historical customs to life during this special time of year quite like Colonial Williamsburg in Virginia.
Tribute and Tradition
Williamsburg, Virginia, has a storied history. Founded in 1632, it became the capital of the Virginia colony in 1699 (remaining that way until 1780) and served as one of America’s first established cities. In addition, it was an important place of political discourse that played a key role in the American Revolution.
To preserve this significance, oil tycoon John D. Rockefeller Jr. created Colonial Williamsburg in the 1920s as “a shrine of history and beauty … dedicated to the lives of the nation’s builders.” A half century later, Colonial Williamsburg made an intentional effort to represent a fuller social history of then-underrepresented people, such as women and African Americans, which it continues to this day.
Spanning over three hundred acres, Colonial Williamsburg is, in the truest sense, a re-creation of an eighteenth-century town—from the buildings to the period dress to the activities. When you spend the holidays here, you experience them as they were hundreds of years ago.
Presidents and Pyrotechnics
There’s so much to do and see as you traipse around Colonial Williamsburg during the holidays. The festivities begin in November with music, dance, and George Washington giving a Thanksgiving proclamation to officially kick off the season. The magic then shifts into high gear with the annual Grand Illumination festivities that take place in the Historic Area on the west side of Colonial Williamsburg. The Grand Illumination, scheduled for December 6 this year, features hours of holiday music, special dinners, and holiday programming, and culminates with the Virginia sky being lit up by fireworks (an eighteenth-century tradition in itself) at three different locations, followed by a procession of fifes and drums.
Once the holiday season begins, there are seemingly endless opportunities to take in the sights and sounds of a truly old-fashioned celebration. The musical performances range from traditional folk music to English country music, from fiddle performances to Elizabethan music played on lutes and viols. And, of course, you’ll find plenty of caroling from different centuries. Even Thomas Jefferson and James Madison introduce you to their favorite holiday classics at Hennage Auditorium.
Are you a history buff? Then you must also see the Hennage programs where dignitaries such as George and Martha Washington, Thomas and Martha Jefferson, James Madison, and Alexander Hamilton discuss historic holiday events that affected their lives and the country; in addition, a visit to the Capitol building (a re-creation of the original building built in 1705) takes you to where history took place in the 1700s. Other storytelling includes tales about holiday traditions from other countries and eras, anecdotes from former slaves, accounts of Native American traditions, and a popular folktale called Super Happy Fishmastide—where Jug Broke Theatre Company performers sing about a “magical beast who was said to save good souls lost at sea and return them home to their families in Virginia at Christmas.”
If you enjoy handiwork, you can watch and listen to craftspeople—including potters, bookbinders, blacksmiths, and carpenters—as they ply their trades throughout town. If you want to join in on the crafting, you can learn how to create eighteenth-century wreaths, decorations, and candles.
However, nothing beats just taking in the sights and sounds of the season in the town itself. Romantics can enjoy horse-drawn carriage rides around town for a bit of nostalgia, and there are more old-fashioned illumination events—including lighting the Christmas tree at Market Square in December—to awaken the kid in everyone. For more time well spent, take a guided walking tour of Colonial Williamsburg’s buildings and marvel at their all-natural, period-specific decorations, and go on the tour of the town’s historic homes, all decked out in festive splendor for the holidays. (Fun fact: Williamsburg popularized the tradition of placing a single candle in the window.) As a special nod to the holidays, on Christmas Eve the programming includes the firing of Christmas guns, a tradition that dates back to the 1700s, at Market Square.
If you want a little bit of twenty-first-century holiday spirit, don’t fret—Colonial Williamsburg has you covered. It boasts museums (including several art museums, where you can learn about the past in a modern setting), an arboretum and gardens decked out for the holidays, and modern shopping and dining galore at Merchants Square, right outside of the Historic Area.
Eat, Drink, and Be Merry
Feasting with friends and family is synonymous with celebrating the season, and there are plenty of historical dining options to choose from in Colonial Williamsburg—including sharing the dinner table with some historical icons.
For example, Duke of Gloucester Street—the main thoroughfare, which Franklin D. Roosevelt dubbed “the most historic avenue in America”—features a pair of eighteenth-century-inspired dining destinations next door to one another. At Shields Tavern and the King’s Arms Tavern, you’ll be regaled with period music, dress, and hearty fare, such Apple-Brined Chicken at Shields, and Hunter’s Game Pye and Soupe Befitting the Gentry at King’s Arms. A mere five-minute walk away on South Waller Street, you’ll find a seafood-based restaurant called Christiana Campbell’s Tavern, which George Washington frequented. All three eateries offer special three-course meals on Thanksgiving, and they are open on Christmas Day as well.
In December, you can opt to share food and drinks with Thomas Jefferson himself at King’s Arms Tavern—you’ll walk away with both a full stomach and stories to tell. And speaking of stories, at the Williamsburg Inn you can enjoy tea or dinner with the holiday season’s greatest storyteller, Charles Dickens, as reenacted by his great-great grandson, Gerald Dickens.
If you and your family would prefer something a little more twenty-first century during your visit, you’re in luck. Places like the Rockefeller Room and the Social Terrace at Williamsburg Inn offer high-end dining options, whereas places like Huzzah’s Eatery, near the town’s visitor center, offer more kid-friendly fare.
Back in the eighteenth century, America was still trying to find its way as it established its independence from England. As such, it held on to customs it brought from the homeland while establishing new ones in a new land. That gift of tradition—taking the good from the past while delighting in promise of the present day—is the essence of what’s celebrated during the holiday season at Colonial Williamsburg in Virginia, making it truly unlike any other destination in America.