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CHRISTMAS AT COLONIAL WILLIAMSBURG

Story and photos by

If preparing for Christmas makes you say "Bah humbug!" a colonial Christmas at Williamsburg, Virginia, will bring quick relief.

Man wearing red cape and tricorn hat arranges a Christmas door wreath.
Man wearing red cape and tricorn hat
arranges a Christmas door wreath.
Photo © Barb & Ron Kroll

Getting to Colonial Williamsburg is easy, because it is located halfway between Richmond and Norfolk Va, 18 kilometers northwest of Newport News/Williamsburg International Airport. Driving our rental car on I-64, we took exit 238 and followed the America's Historic Triangle signs to the Colonial Williamsburg Visitor Center.

Williamsburg hotels

Half an hour after we left Newport News Airport, we checked into the Williamsburg Inn. The cozy lobby, with its old-fashioned Christmas tree, two glowing fireplaces and Christmas music, enveloped us with Yuletide spirit.

The Colonial Williamsburg Resort Collection has six on-site Williamsburg hotels, ranging from luxury (Williamsburg Inn, Williamsburg Lodge and Providence Hall Guesthouses) and mid-priced (Colonial Houses - Historic Lodging, Williamsburg Woodlands Hotel & Suites) to budget (Governor's Inn).

Lamp post with street signs and Christmas decorations
Lamp post with street signs and Christmas decorations
Photo © Barb & Ron Kroll

Each hotel offers Williamsburg holiday packages, which include Colonial Williamsburg Hotel Guest Passes for admission to the Historic Area and some meals and/or tours.

Williamsburg weather

We needed winter coats for the Williamsburg VA December temperatures (6 to 10 degrees C. during the day and as low as 0 degrees C. at night). Colonial Williamsburg rarely receives snow. When snowfalls do occur they are usually light.

Because Williamsburg Inn is located within the 71-hectare Historic Area, we could forget about driving and explore Colonial Williamsburg on foot. We needed comfortable shoes, because the Historic Area is nearly two kilometers long and 0.4 to 0.8 kilometers wide. Our admission passes included transportation on Historic Area shuttle buses in case we didn't want to walk.

Colonial Williamsburg museums

Visitors often underestimate the size of Colonial Williamsburg and the extent of its exhibits. Colonial Williamsburg has 88 original structures, 500 reconstructed buildings and 40 exhibition buildings, containing 225 rooms with period furnishings from a 100,000-item collection.

There are also 100 gardens, numerous shops and three museums: The DeWitt Wallace Decorative Arts Museum, the Abby Aldrich Rockefeller Folk Art Museum and Bassett Hall, the John D. Rockefeller Jr. family home in Williamsburg.

Homemade natural decorations for Christmas
Homemade natural decorations for Christmas
Photo © Barb & Ron Kroll

Outdoor Christmas decor

While we strolled along the traffic-free streets, costumed residents decorated their homes with wreaths and swags, made from holly, cedar, mistletoe, ivy and other greenery. Colonial Williamsburg staff decorated the doors, windows and railings of the public buildings.

Homemade Christmas decorations on the private homes varied from flat magnolia leaves, adorned with corn husk rosettes, to a wooden water container, spilling over with pine cones, cotton pods, holly berries and juniper.

Couple in colonial costume talk by entrance gate to Governor's Palace.
Couple in colonial costume talk by entrance gate to Governor's Palace.
Photo © Barb & Ron Kroll

Williamsburg holiday events

There are three rules for visiting Colonial Williamsburg at Christmas time: reservations, reservations, and reservations. The holiday season between the Grand Illumination and New Year's Day is full of special events, but they are very popular and tickets sell out quickly.

Allow at least three days in Colonial Williamsburg. Download free copies of the Colonial Williamsburg Vacation Planner and the Colonial Williamsburg Holiday Planner and Calendar, or request them from 1-800-HISTORY. Use the brochures to develop a touring, dining and entertainment plan for each day, so you can order tickets in advance.

Colonial Williamsburg Illuminations

The Grand Illumination, on the first Sunday in December, begins the Williamsburg holiday celebrations. Thousands of spectators enjoy the military tattoo, carolers, stage performances, fireworks and the illumination of buildings.

December illuminations of Colonial Williamsburg buildings light up Wetherburn's Tavern, Raleigh Tavern, the Capitol, Market Square buildings and the homes, stores and public buildings on Palace Green.

For the Palace Green illuminations, a red-coated fife and drum corps paraded down Duke of Gloucester Street and up to the George Wythe House. A bonfire flared to life, and people encircled it to warm their frost-nipped fingers. Muskets fired and a cannon exploded, as costumed militiamen raised flaming torches to set cressets (wire baskets filled with pine chips) ablaze.

Illumination of George Wythe House with burning cressets
Illumination of George Wythe House with burning cressets
Photo © Barb & Ron Kroll

The George Wythe House glowed from the light as a narrator recounted the history of the home and its inhabitants. The illuminations continued around the Palace Green, culminating with the Governor's Palace.

Free events at Colonial Williamsburg

Besides the Illuminations, other Christmas events are included with general admission to the Colonial Williamsburg Historic Area. Visitors can sing along with carolers at the Palmer House, Robert Carter House, Wetherburn's Tavern and the Courthouse.

We sat in the pews of Wren Chapel at College of William & Mary, the oldest continuously-used academic building in the USA, and listened to A Sermon for the Season.

Christmas tree lighting

On Christmas Eve, we walked to the Magazine, a military arsenal, on Duke of Gloucester Street. As the sun set, soldiers re-created the 18th-century Firing of the Christmas Guns celebration to salute the Christmas season. The trills and staccato beats of the fife and drum corps joined the resonating booms.

From the steps of the Courthouse, we watched the annual lighting of the Colonial Williamsburg Community Christmas tree. In the darkness, hundreds of tiny candles illuminated the faces of onlookers, while a narrator recounted the origins of the first Christmas tree in Williamsburg. (Dr. Charles Minnigerode, an immigrant from Germany where the custom originated, decorated a tree for the children of the Tucker family, in 1842.)

The narrator flipped a switch and lit a stately Norway spruce with a galaxy of white lights. A band began to play and a thousand voices sang Oh, Christmas Tree!

Williamsburg colonial soldiers fire Christmas cannon.
Williamsburg colonial soldiers fire Christmas cannon.
Photo © Barb & Ron Kroll

Christmas entertainment

Tickets are required for many Christmas music and theater performances, as well as holiday feasts. One-hour evening Musical Diversions at the Courthouse include a concert by the Colonial Singers, a master fiddler, and a Holiday Fiddle and Song performance of popular 18th-century songs and dance music.

A Christmas Tale, at the Raleigh Tavern, showed us how 18th-century Virginians celebrated with music, dancing and theatre. During an evening walking tour, Christmastide at Home, visitors learn about traditional Williamsburg Virginia Christmas customs.

On four Kid's Holiday Weekends, in late-November and December, children sing Christmas carols, listen to stories, help cook holiday foods and play card games like loo. Children can also make Christmas decorations, learn about a Colonial Christmas from craftsmen and take a guided tour of the Historic Area on A Kid's Holiday Memories morning program.

The Governor's Palace is the setting for evening candlelight tours and an elegant ball, called An Evening of Dance at the Palace. Bewigged gentlemen and elaborately gowned ladies danced minuets, reels and country dances, as visitors watched and eavesdropped on their conversations.

Balladeer entertains diners at Christmas breakfast in Christiana Campbell's Tavern.
Balladeer entertains diners at Christmas breakfast in Christiana Campbell's Tavern.
Photo © Barb & Ron Kroll

Williamsburg dining

Appetites sharpened by the crisp night air, we walked to Williamsburg Lodge for its Yuletide Groaning Board. (The name derives from medieval days when so much food was served that the table "groaned" from the weight.)

Strolling guitarists and violinists serenaded us as we began our meal with peanut soup and freshly baked bread. The rhythmic beat of a fife and drum corps heralded a procession of waiters holding huge trays of medallions of beef and southern fried chicken, high above their heads.

Bottomless carafes of ale and sweet cider appeared on our table. As the salad was served, dancers and fiddlers performed the Virginia reel. By the time we loosened our belts to eat the sour cherry trifle, the Madrigal singers were caroling.

Williamsburg Lodge

A holiday Breakfast with the Chefs at Williamsburg Lodge includes cooking demonstrations of traditional Christmas dishes. A Yuletide Supper on Christmas Eve, also at Williamsburg Lodge, features Christmas songs and stories between dinner courses. Williamsburg Lodge Christmas Brunch, on December 25, is a bountiful buffet. At the Baron's Feast, an evening banquet at Williamsburg Lodge, we feasted on oyster and lobster pies, roast beef and chocolate chestnut pudding, as costumed performers provided entertainment.

Fife and drum corps at Yuletide Groaning Board dinner at Williamsburg Lodge
Fife and drum corps at Yuletide Groaning Board dinner
at Williamsburg Lodge
Photo © Barb & Ron Kroll

The Williamsburg Inn serves an elegant Christmas feast, called White House Christmas, in the Regency Room.

Williamsburg taverns

As an alternative to Williamsburg hotel restaurants, four historic taverns on Duke of Gloucester Street offer good food at reasonable prices. The dress code is casual.

One of George Washington's favorite restaurants, Christiana Campbell's Tavern, serves great seafood dishes, like lump crab cakes and jambalaya. Costumed waiters served us Travis House oyster and ham pie and a colonial game pie of braised venison, duck and rabbit at the King's Arms Tavern, a colonial chophouse.

At Chowning's Tavern, we enjoyed barbecued ribs, roast duckling and draft root beer, followed by buttered apple pie and black walnut ice cream. Afterward, minstrels and balladeers encouraged patrons to sing along with them and play colonial gambols (games).

Visitors can quaff a tankard of ale or cider at Shields Tavern, and eat pulled BBQ pork sandwiches, buffalo meatloaf and spiced carrot cake ice cream, while Virginia colonists provide entertainment.

For take-out food at Colonial Williamsburg, Raleigh Tavern Bake Shop sells Sally Lunn bread, ginger cakes and delectable treats, baked from 18th-century recipes.

Holiday dining

Colonial Williamsburg taverns are the locations for many Christmas banquets and holiday receptions. All require tickets and advance reservations.

At Christiana Campbell's Tavern, Mrs. Campbell and her daughter Molly serve tea, while informing guests about colonial Christmas traditions. Balladeers and storytellers provide 18th-century entertainment, while you dine at Campbell's Tavern Evening of Lyrics and Lore.

During the Shields Tavern Holiday Feast, guests enjoy visits from the tavern cook, Mr. Shields and other colonial guests. At the Thomas Jefferson Wine Dinner, at King's Arms Tavern, "Thomas Jefferson" talks about his trips around the world, as diners sample some of the wines that he introduced to Virginia.

Chowning's Tavern is the location for the Christmas Tree Illumination Reception on Christmas Eve. Guests sip hot apple cider and eat seasonal holiday treats before watching the community Christmas tree lighting. On New Year's Eve, Chowning's Tavern, balladeers and colonial characters entertain guests, as they sample 18th-century recipes and toast in the New Year.

Couple prepare Christmas dinner in Governor's Palace kitchen.
Couple prepare Christmas dinner in Governor's Palace kitchen.
Photo © Barb & Ron Kroll

Christmas breakfast

At Christiana Campbell's Tavern, King's Arms Tavern and Shields Tavern, costumed waiters and waitresses serve. Christmas breakfast, while balladeers sing Christmas carols as familiar to visitors as they were to the early inhabitants: God Rest Ye Merry Gentlemen, Deck the Halls and The First Noel.

The three Colonial Williamsburg taverns also serve 18th-century style Christmas dinner.

Colonial Christmas

Food played a key role in the holiday celebrations for early settlers. At Colonial Williamsburg, the Governor's Palace dining room has an awesome display of ham, mince pies, trifle, sugar cakes and other Christmas delicacies on silver dishes.

We visited George Wythe House, where cooks prepared Christmas dinner on a wood-fired hearth. One of the cooks beat eggs in a copper bowl, with a branch whisk, while another removed fragrant ginger cakes from a Dutch oven.

"The word cookies wasn't in our vocabulary, 200 years ago," she told us. A table, beside them, displayed other Christmas dishes that they had prepared: roast duck with onion sauce, baked boar's head and candied squash biscuits.

Peyton Randolph, a cousin of Thomas Jefferson, invited us into his home for a tour and a glimpse of the dining room table laden with sweet potato pudding, seed cakes, marzipan fruits and a cake, shaped and decorated with slivered almonds to resemble a tiny hedgehog.

At the Benjamin Powell House, Annabelle Powell invited us inside and introduced us to her two daughters. One was making a pyramid of sugar cakes, while the daughter embroidered a cover for her bible.

Man with tricorn hat drives family in horse-drawn carriage.
Man with tricorn hat drives family in horse-drawn carriage.
Photo © Barb & Ron Kroll

Christmas holidays

As we walked along the streets in the Colonial Williamsburg Historic Area, we watched villagers lean over split-rail fences, treating their horses to crisp apples. The clip-clop of horses' hooves echoed over the cobblestones, as a man with knee-britches and a tricorn hat, drove by on a carriage. The pungent aroma of wood-burning fires scented the chilly air.

Immersing ourselves in the colonial Virginia celebrations, we began to walk more slowly, to breathe more deeply, to smell the pine-scented needles and the hickory-smoked hams. We had time to enjoy mouthwatering holiday meals, Christmas music, candle-lit evenings and the company of the friendly villagers and fellow travelers alike.

For us, reliving Christmas traditions in Colonial Williamsburg was a stress-free Christmas holiday.


TRAVEL INFORMATION

Christmas in Colonial Williamsburg: www.colonialwilliamsburg.com

More Christmas activities in Williamsburg:

Christmas Decorations Walking Tour - Colonial Williamsburg