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We're on a one-hour Christmas decorations walking tour of Colonial Williamsburg. Located halfway between Richmond and Norfolk on I-64 (exit 238), Colonial Williamsburg is 11 miles northwest of Newport News/Williamsburg International Airport.

Colonial Williamsburg guide explains how to make a Christmas wreath.
Colonial Williamsburg guide explains how to make a Christmas wreath.
Photo © Barb & Ron Kroll

Just wandering through the streets of the 301-acre Williamsburg Historic Area is a delight for the eyes and spirit, but we joined the tour to learn more about the history, construction and components of the Christmas decorations.

"Don't worry about opening the picket fence gates and walking right up on people's porches to have a closer look," says Cathy, who was the guide during our visit. "The people who live in Colonial Williamsburg know that they're living in a museum."

Christmas decorations from natural materials

Don't expect to see colored lights, shiny baubles and tinsel, however. Only natural materials and products, available in the 18th century, are used.

Beginning the first week of December, each of the homes, shops and taverns dons its Christmas dress. Wreaths of shiny red apples, green garlands, bright berries and ropes of pine decorate doors and windows.

Each night, beginning at dusk, a single white candle shines in all 1,200 windows. "In the 18th century, you wouldn't find candles in the windows, like we have here in Williamsburg, today," says Cathy. "Candles were very expensive, because they were imported from England."

Candle in window decorated with boxwood wreath, apples, berries and French horn
Candle in window decorated with boxwood wreath, apples, berries and French horn
Photo © Barb & Ron Kroll

There were illuminations of the town for events like the monarch's birthday, the arrival of a new governor and victory in battle. Besides fireworks displays, illuminations included candles burning in the windows of gentlemen's houses and in the cupolas of public buildings.

Fruit decorations and Yule logs

The same applies to the colorful arrays of lemons, limes, oranges, apples and pineapples that we see adorning houses today. "In truth, such fruit would've been reserved for the table, and later eaten as a special treat," continues Cathy.

The fruit would have been familiar to the colonists, however. Pomegranates were grown in Virginia in the 18th century, and oranges are said to have been a favorite fruit of the governor, Lord Botetourt.

"Early residents hung clusters of mistletoe in their parlors, and put sprigs of holly in the windows. They would've done this on Christmas eve or Christmas day, itself."

Nowadays, decorating Williamsburg for Christmas is a year-long process, with the ordering of supplies and the gathering and drying of materials for dried decorations, such as sumac, rose hips and everlasting flowers. More than 15 truckloads of local greens, 79 cases of fresh fruit and three miles of pine roping are transformed into 2,550 white pine and Fraser fir wreaths and other arrangements.

Grand Illumination

Four days before the Grand Illumination, which signals the start of Christmas at Williamsburg, floral and garden employees begin to deck out over 80 exhibition buildings, trade shops, taverns and offices in the Historic Area.

"They try to decorate with items that can be associated with the building," explains Cathy, as we stroll toward the Apothecary Shop. "This arrangement, for example, contains herbs and juniper, which was used to make gin, which in turn was used as a medicine."

Door decoration, with boxwood, pineapple, apples and lemons
Door decoration, with boxwood, pineapple, apples and lemons
Photo © Barb & Ron Kroll

Further down the road, at Chowning's Tavern, Cathy points out a wreath covered with fruit. "The Christmas punch bowl was very popular in England," she recounts. "The word 'punch' comes from the (Asian) Indian word punge which means five, since you need five ingredients to make a punch: fruit, water, sugar, spices and alcohol."

At the nearby George Wythe House, Cathy points out a boxwood wreath. It's so heavy with apples that it is placed above the door rather than on it, where it would likely break as the door is opened and closed. "Note that many decorations are very symmetrical, just like the building," she adds.

Pine cones, gingerbread men and holly berries

While Colonial Williamsburg floral designers decorate the public buildings, employees who reside in Historic Area homes are responsible for their decorations. They even have a doorway-decorating contest. Blue ribbons identify the winners.

Many decorations have hidden florist oasis foam, wire frames or plywood bases with spikes for impaling the fruit. Others utilize more ingenious supports such as bird's nests and buckets, spilling over with oranges, cinnamon sticks and pine cones.

Christmas wreath with apples, chinaberries and trumpet vine pods
Christmas wreath with apples, chinaberries and trumpet vine pods
Photo © Barb & Ron Kroll

The creativity of the residents amazed us. One folded corn husks into rosettes, while another baked tiny gingerbread men and tied them to a wreath with red yarn.

We are intrigued by the variety of berries tucked in among the rose hips, cotton balls, magnolia leaves and greenery in the decorations. Besides holly berries, we see yellow China berries, fuchsia beauty berries and orange bittersweet berries.

Colonial gardens

"You'll find these berries growing in the gardens, so please take advantage of the open gates," urges Cathy. "All the gardens are open to the public, even the private ones. Our landscaping staff maintains them to ensure that only 18th-century plants are grown."

Even with gardeners and florists handling the decorations, problems can occur. "If it's a cold December with ice storms and frost, the fruit has to be replaced frequently, because it spoils," states Cathy. "If it's a warm month, the greens have to be renewed often because they turn brown in the afternoon sun."

December temperatures average six to 10 °C. (43 to 50 °F.) during the day and drop to 0 °C. (32 °F.) at night. Snow is unlikely. (Williamsburg gets a dusting every few years.)

There are also natural hazards, like birds and squirrels. Cathy shows us a wreath decorated with osage oranges. "We call it fruitus non-edibus," she laughs. "The residents of this home used to brighten their wreath with shiny red apples, but the squirrels would hop up on it and chomp away at the fruit."

Visitors observe decorations on Colonial Williamsburg building.
Visitors observe decorations on Colonial Williamsburg building.
Photo © Barb & Ron Kroll

We note a stately Norway spruce on Market Square, festooned with lights. "It's the community's Christmas tree," explains Cathy, "and it stands in Market Square, opposite the Courthouse, not far from the George Tucker House, where the first Christmas tree in Williamsburg was set aglow with candles more than 150 years ago."

How to make natural Christmas decorations

By the time the tour is finished, we are eager to try making natural wreaths and swags for our home. Fortunately, Colonial Williamsburg anticipated this response and offers hands-on Christmas decoration workshops in December. Reservations are essential.

If the timing of your trip doesn't coincide with the classes, or they are booked up, Colonial Williamsburg sells beautifully illustrated how-to books, CDs and videos.


Colonial Williamsburg: www.colonialwilliamsburg.com

More Christmas activities in Williamsburg:

Christmas at Colonial Williamsburg