Christmas in Colonial Williamsburg evokes images of holidays past and Dickens remembered, of warbling carolers, flaming yule logs, brimming wassail bowls, cobblestone streets and doors trimmed with evergreens.
The setting is perfect. Colonial Williamsburg lives today just as it did nearly three centuries ago, when it was the social, cultural and political capital of England's largest and perhaps most influential colony in the New World. Later it became the only important Colonial capital that, for practical matters, could be restored to its pre-Revolutionary appearance.
The city's restoration was began in 1926 by John D. Rockefeller Jr., who was inspired by the vision of the Rev. W. A. R. Goodwin. A non-profit educational institution, known as the Colonial Williamsburg Foundation, was established to preserve and interpret what has become one of the most extensive restorations ever undertaken.
All major public buildings of the original city plan still exist or have been re-created, and join a bustling Colonial community of homes, gardens and shops that make up the 173-acre historic area.
Every holiday season Williamsburg decks the halls and extends a hearty invitation to experience an 18th century Christmas.
Heralding in this festive fortnight is the Grand Illumination of the city Dec. 2. Colorful fife and drum corps thunder in Holiday Tattoo for the White Lighting of the Historic Area, aglow with fireworks and candlelight tours and festooned with garlands, wandering minstrels and 18th century merriment.
Bonfires and cressets (baskets of burning wood atop 7-foot poles) light the Governor's Palace and illuminate buildings that surround the Palace Green. Narrations bring history to life with simultaneous presentations at the Old Capital, taverns and Market Square.
Traditions are cherished in Williamsburg, and visitors are quickly caught up in the trappings of a typical Early American Christmas.
Awakening to the crack of gunfire on Christmas morning is no cause for alarm; it's merely following a custom called "shooting in the Christmas" in which Colonial boys would welcome the joyful occasion.
Then as now, the Feast of the Nativity was a major event of the Anglican calendar. Celebrations centered around family, church and friends. Business and schools closed, slaves and servants enjoyed a day away from their labors.
From mid-December through Twelfth Night (Jan. 6), neighbors, friends and kinsmen gathered for parties, dances and fox hunts. They feasted on good English fare of roast beef, goose, plum pudding and mince pies, and Virginia's new-found delicacies of wild turkey, duck, venison and fish from local waters.
The Colonials had a taste for the grape and imported Madeira and claret wines by the barrel. Punches made of rum or arrack, rum flip and a frothy mixture of cream and wine or spirits called syllabub were popular, as were French brandy, sherry, beer, ale and Virginia cider. It wasn't until the end of the century that eggnog claimed its place among holiday drinks.
A Christmas feast is part of a Williamsburg tradition -- the Groaning Board. It's a three-hour, Colonial-style spread, accompanied by members of the Fife and Drum Corps, Colonial dancers and madrigal singers.
The Baron's feast is another sumptuous repast reminiscent of Old England; the Baron invites you, his villagers, tenants, and farmers into the Great Hall for the season's traditional foods, appropriate courtly merriment and mirth. Both feasts are held several times during the holidays. If you hear the sounds of distant drums, the natives aren't restless -- it's just another Southern tradition of transmitting greetings from plantation to plantation by "beating the holiday drums."
Drum rolls begin on Dec. 26 and Dec. 28 at 4:30 p.m., when the Virginia State Garrison Regiment, Colonial Williamsburg Militia Company and the Fifes and Drums fill Market Square with resounding military pageantry.
Virginia's countryside offered the colonists abundant greens of holly, cedar, pine, mistletoe, ivy and bay for holiday garlands. Candles, nuts and pine cones, rich red and green apples, golden oranges, lemons, crimson cranberries and velvet grapes tucked among the foliage added texture and shine. Pineapples arrived on West Indies trading ships and were proudly displayed as a symbol of hospitality.
This festive bedecking, once reserved for the king's birthday, is continued by present-day citizens who fashion wreaths and evergreen swags from the same natural materials available to their forefathers. Many compete in Colonial Williamsburg's annual Door Decoration Contest. Visitors can participate at decoration lectures and workshops and take home the rewards of their handiwork, then enjoy a one-hour walking tour emphasizing the style and materials of Christmas decorations in the Historic Area.