Christmas in Colonial Williamsburg: Traditions of the PastSeptember 19, 2010 1 Comment
While it may feel like our Christmas traditions have existed since time began, this is far from reality. Modern American traditions are a hodgepodge of rituals brought to our shores by settlers from other lands. For example, Christmas trees were common in Germany by the 1500s, but were not popularized in the United States until the mid-1800s. Even the traditional “Christmas dinner” has evolved over time depending on the local availability of various foods. In Colonial Williamsburg, Virginia, Christmas is celebrated exactly the way that it was celebrated in Virginia at the time of the Revolutionary War. While your family will recognize many of the traditions, there are distinct differences from modern celebrations. You will also learn the importance of Christmas to families divided by war, slavery and hardship.
The capital of Virginia from 1699 until 1780, Williamsburg was instrumental in the planning and success of the Revolutionary War. Thomas Jefferson, George Washington, Peyton Randolph and other patriot leaders planned and strategized in the city’s taverns and coffee houses, while the townspeople whispered in the streets. After Jefferson moved the capital to Richmond, Williamsburg was nearly deserted. By the early 20th century, many of the most historic buildings had fallen into ruin.
Then rector of the Bruton Parish Church, located on the edge of the historic district, Reverend Dr. Goodwin recognized Williamsburg’s historic value. In 1926, with the help of John D. Rockefeller, Jr., Goodwin led a successful campaign to restore more than 80 historic buildings. Today the Colonial Williamsburg Foundation, a non-profit organization, is responsible for the maintenance and preservation of the historic district.
Today Colonial Williamsburg is a massive living history complex. From shopkeepers to revolutionaries; slaves to British loyalists; virtually everyone you encounter inhabits the role of someone who actually lived or worked in Williamsburg during the early Revolutionary period. Your admission ticket includes virtually all regularly scheduled daytime programming, from period comedy shows to speeches by Patrick Henry and the Marquis de Lafayette.
Throughout the Christmas season, Colonial Williamsburg comes alive with the traditions of the season, as they would have been celebrated in the late 1700s. Take a walking tour to view the various decorations throughout town and learn the meaning behind them. Enjoy special music concerts, carolers and even traditional balls. Christmastide at Home is an evening visit to three very different homes as the occupants prepare for Christmas Day. Most Christmas programs are separately priced, and buying tickets well in advance is highly recommended. Take a look at the Christmas Visitors Guide for detailed information.
Some programs are specifically designed for children, such as the Kids’ Holiday Weekend, which takes place every weekend throughout the holiday season. Throughout the historic district, extra reenactors are on hand with a wide range of special activities. Kids can help prepare a holiday meal, create craft projects and toys perfect for Christmas gifts, and learn how kids their own age celebrated Christmas. All Kids’ Holiday Weekend activities are included with basic admission.
If you will visit early in the season, don’t miss the Grand Illumination. This official kickoff to the holiday season takes place along the Palace Green. Homes and businesses are illuminated as the fife and drum corps plays and muskets are fired in celebration. Arrive very early to claim a good viewing location, as the free event draws hundreds of locals as well as tourists. Bring a lawn chair or blanket and find a comfortable spot in the grass. Dress warmly, as December weather can be chilly, especially at night.
Just like today, dining was an important part of the Christmas season during Colonial times. However, the foods were very different than those we enjoy today. Throughout the historic district and official Colonial hotels, special menus are offered during the holidays. Enjoy a mid-afternoon holiday tea hosted by tavern keeper Christiana Campbell or a holiday breakfast feast at the King’s Arms. Join a Georgian butler for an explanation of the era’s holiday traditions followed by a gourmet dinner. All dining events are open to children of all ages, and most offer a significantly discounted price for kids aged 6 to 12. Those aged 5 and under are generally free of charge.
While all of the holiday meals are well worth the price, the “don’t-miss” event of the season is the Yuletide Supper, held at the Williamsburg Lodge on Christmas Eve. The event combines gourmet, historically accurate dining with music, dance and other special performances. Kids’ tickets are priced the same as adults, and no discounts apply. Nonetheless, if you will take advantage of only one special holiday meal, this is the one to choose.
Where to Stay
If you can get reservations, plan to stay in an official Colonial Williamsburg hotel. From the deluxe Williamsburg Lodge to the budget-priced Governor’s Inn, there is an official hotel for every budget and desired level of amenities. Hotel guests can book reservations for Christmas events before they open to the general public, and can purchase heavily discounted general admission tickets. Free shuttle bus service connects the hotels to the historic area, providing easy access to all activities.