Christmases past and present Now is the time for all good daytrippers to visit their neighboring states


Is there a better time for a day trip than the holiday season? Yuletide adds luster to the most ordinary sites, but in Williamsburg and Alexandria, Va., in the sleepy towns of Lancaster County, Pa., and in the outposts of West Virginia, Christmastime has special appeal.

A Grand Illumination heralds the season in Colonial Williamsburg on Dec. 6. Thousands of visitors will gather in the historic area at dusk to watch the spectacle. Single white candles are lighted simultaneously in the windows of each house, while 18th-century fireworks are set ablaze at the Governor's Palace, Capitol and Magazine.

It is a tradition that goes back 200 years. A military tattoo by the Williamsburg Fife and Drum Corps precedes the illumination, along with musical entertainment on four stages. The celebration continues through the first of the year with candlelight concerts at the Governor's Palace, dancing at the Raleigh Tavern, period vocal music at the Capitol, 18th-century plays and other events. Call (800) HISTORY.

Alexandria is another town that goes all out to celebrate the holidays. Here the season gets under way Dec. 5 with the traditional Scottish Christmas Walk, a parade of tartan-clad clansmen, bagpipe bands, Scottish breed dogs, antique cars and floats, beginning at 10:30 a.m. The parade is a salute to the town's Scottish heritage.

Afterward, hot spiced cider and food will be on sale on Market Square. Some of the area's finest craftspeople will be there, too, to sell their handmade gift items.

Also that day, several homes in Old Town will open their doors to the public for a holiday homes tour from 11 a.m. to 4 p.m. Tickets cost $15. The day concludes with a Christmas ceilidh, a traditional Scottish party in private homes and the Belle Haven Country Club. The event is open to the public. Call (703) 549-0111.

The annual Old Town Christmas Candlelight Tour Dec. 11-13 is another popular event. Three of Alexandria's historic homes -- the Carlyle House, the Boyhood Home of Robert E. Lee and the Lee-Fendall House -- will be open for tour with period decorations and musical entertainment. Refreshments will be served at Gadsby's Tavern, an 18th-century establishment frequented by George Washington. The tour runs from 7 p.m. to 9:30 p.m. Friday and Saturday, and an afternoon tour will be offered on Sunday from 1 p.m. to 4 p.m. Tickets cost $12 for adults; $5 for ages 6 to 17. Call (703) 838-4200.

Christmas in Lancaster County has a different character. An evening Candlelight Tour at Hans Herr House, Lancaster's oldest home, is scheduled Dec. 4 and 5 from 6 p.m. to 8:30 p.m. Guests are transported by a Conestoga wagon drawn by oxen from the museum visitor center to the house.

Inside they can glimpse holiday life of the early Mennonites. A Christmas story is read in German, traditional food is cooked over the open hearth and offered for sampling, and demonstrations are performed by a coppersmith, weaver and other craftsmen. Outside, guests can sip hot spiced cider and sing carols around a bonfire. Admission is $4 for adults; $1 for ages 7 to 12. Call (717) 464-4438.

Mount Hope Estate and Winery in Cornwall, Pa., offers a Charles Dickens Christmas Past on weekends through Dec. 27. Guests will find themselves in the company of Oliver Twist, Nicholas Nickleby, Miss Haversham and Scrooge, as costumed actors bring Dickens' classic tales to life. There will also be readings, caroling, Victorian parlor games and hot mulled wine.

Performance times are 6 p.m. and 9 p.m. Fridays; noon, 3 p.m. and 7 p.m. Saturdays and Sundays. Admission is $8.95 for adults; $5 for children. Reservations are required. Call (717) 665-7021.

In the village of Strasburg, Pa., visitors can board the Strasburg Rail Road's "Santa Train" to Paradise, Pa. The train, made up of authentic wooden coaches pulled by a steam locomotive, rumbles through the scenic countryside with St. Nick on board. The dates are Dec. 5, 6, 12, 13, 19 and 20. Call for times and reservations, (717) 687-7522.

While in Strasburg, check out the holiday offerings at the Toy Train Museum, the Gast Classic Motorcars Museum and the Sight & Sound Entertainment Centre. Also, the Railroad Museum of Pennsylvania will present Home for the Holidays: A Christmas Lantern Tour Dec. 12 from 7 p.m. to 9 p.m. The museum will adopt the atmosphere of a railroad terminal of 50 years ago, with museum volunteers portraying engineers, firemen and conductors.

Many of the museum's railroad locomotives and passenger cars, which date back to the Civil War, will be open to the public. Tickets cost $3 for adults; $2 for children; and include complimentary refreshments. Call (717) 687-8628.

A Candlelight Christmas in Chadds Ford, Pa., on Dec. 5 is always a treat. At Brandywine Battlefield Park, Revolutionary War soldiers escort visitors across the luminaria-lighted battlefield to the Gideon Gilpin House (Lafayette's Quarters). The house was recently restored, and on this night offers living history vignettes and sweets of the period.

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