Christmas in Williamsburg

The historic area celebrates holidays past with its own twist on Colonial traditions

  • Colonial Williamsburg has been the scene of a decorating competition that has only escalated despite the stringent rules that the materials used must from nature and available in the 18th century, and it now includes the homes of residents as well as the historical buildings.
Colonial Williamsburg has been the scene of a decorating competition… (Susan Reimer, BALTIMORE…)
December 11, 2009|By Susan Reimer

WILLIAMSBURG, VA. — If your only exposure to Colonial Williamsburg occurred in the company of a busload of unruly middle-schoolers, you owe yourself a return visit during December, when the air is cooler, the streets are quieter and the town is dressed in its holiday finest.

At Christmastime, homes in the historic district, in addition to those in nearby neighborhoods, put on elaborate displays of fruit- and flower-laden wreaths, boughs and swags and miles of pine roping. They People didn't use fruit to decorate in Revolutionary War Williamsburg and, restoration purists will tell you, they would not be allowed to start such a historically inaccurate tradition today.

But since the 1930s, when workers were paid $1 a night to baby-sit the burning candles in the windows of the houses on Duke of Gloucester Street, Colonial Williamsburg has been the scene of a decorating competition that has only escalated despite the stringent rules that the materials used must be from nature and available in the 18th century.

And, since the historic attraction began rethinking its mission in the mid-1990s and changed its lecture approach to a live theater teaching model, there is plenty happening in the Colonial city, with programs, music and events geared to the holidays.

You can hear Christmas carols and learn their history; take dance lessons and then watch drama unfold at a ball at the Governor's Palace; or listen to the firing of the Christmas Guns and watch the carnival-like entertainment of the Grand Medley.

You can celebrate a real Colonial Christmas with a modern twist.

'Revolutionary City'

Since Colonial Williamsburg changed its program to "Revolutionary City" in 1994, the story of the country's birth is played out in scenes everywhere in the historic area and the "citizens" are always in character.

Two maidens show off their homespun dresses, worn because of the Colonies' embargo on the purchase of anything English, including dressmaking fabric, and they tell the tale of Mr. Alexander Purdy, whose order of herring arrived after the boycott had begun and who quickly gave it up for auction lest he be tarred and feathered and run out of town.

All of this is in contrast to the white vans parked incongruously along Duke of Gloucester Street, putting up the last of the holiday decorations as a brace of oxen pulls a cart through town.

Equally out of time as is the cowboy-hatted Bill Drewry, a modern-day Williamsburg resident. He is our guide for the Christmas Decoration Walking Tour, a popular fixture since the late 1960s, showcasing wreaths, swags and boughs made with lengths of pine and crates of fruit.

These decorations, he tells us, were not Colonial at all but inspired by the lush Renaissance motifs of sculptor Andrea della Robbia, who surrounded his Madonna and child medallions with fruit-laden greenery. The style was copied in the 1930s by Louise Fisher, who had been placed in charge of Christmas decorations, and went on to be copied far beyond the streets of Williamsburg. Colonials would have decorated only indoors, with simple pine wreaths or boughs of other greenery, and would certainly not have wasted fresh fruit.

He Drewry reads a letter from an unknown Colonial woman, printed in an English newspaper in 1712, who complained of all the greenery on the altar of the church. So much, she wrote, that the minister appeared to be delivering a message, much like the one Moses received, from behind a burning bush.

Said Drewry, who grew up on Duke of Gloucester Street while his father worked installing the invisible air conditioning that makes Williamsburg's historic buildings bearable in the summer, "Can you imagine what she would say today?"

A town alive with talk

The outspoken Colonial woman is not alone in making her point of view known. The town is alive with talk of revolution and anger over burdensome British taxes, and you can hear the citizens discuss these topics, and just plain gossip, when you visit one of the Colonial taverns.

At Christiana Campbell's Tavern, Mistress Campbell, who has run the place since the death of her husband, confides to us during her holiday tea that she has had to rely on smugglers since the ban on drinking the taxed British tea.

She is plump and cheerful despite the tense times and offers a toast (explaining that a bit of toast was actually dropped in a glass before speaking and drinking) "to all that we have to be thankful for."

Wearing yards of green taffeta and holly pinned to her lace cap, - and the keys to the tea box and the sugar bins tied securely around her waist - she talks of Patrick Henry's speech in Philadelphia and of the man's apparent need to hear the sound of his own voice.

Mistress Peachy Purdy, wife of the town's newspaper publisher, greets guests at King's Arms Tavern and then conspires with the town's Irish postal carrier, Mr. Abraham, to play a practical joke on the Rev. John Bruce, the stiff and unsmiling Presbyterian minister.

Since Christmas is the time when many couples wed and since the reverend has been after the postman to wed, Mr. Abraham will do so with his horse, to which he is devoted. Mistress Purdy's husband will print the intent to marry on the front page of his newspaper.

At the recently opened R. Charlton's Coffeehouse, the restored site of the riots that followed Britain's imposition of the Stamp Tax, Peyton Randolph, the king's attorney, shares coffee, a liquid chocolate drink or tea with us "out of towners" who might have news, and he talks about the politics of the day. And from his words, we could hear that more was simmering in that coffeehouse than just coffee.

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