With each passing year, the Christmas holidays seem to become more and more materialistic. Halloween barely passes before department stores display trees festooned with shiny ornaments and TV commercials begin hawking the mountain of toys and gifts that loved ones absolutely must have.
To me, it seems the original meaning of Christmas has been lost somewhere amid the bright wrappings and bows, the online marketing and the crass commercialism. So I wanted to seek out a place with a simpler holiday philosophy: Colonial Williamsburg. With the vision of sipping a glass of wassail before a crackling fire in a cozy eighteenth-century tavern in my head, my husband and I booked three nights at the Williamsburg Inn, the elegant Colonial Revival lodging that has held court since 1937.
We get our first taste of the Williamsburg holiday spirit by arriving at sunset and seeing the inn’s façade—including its two-story columned portico—and the trees out front, glittering with thousands of white lights. Inside, the lobby is flanked on either end by fireplaces, whose burning logs cast a warm glow across a space decorated with a large Christmas tree in front of the windows. Ah, we’re off to a good start.
A six-hour drive northeast of Greenville, in the Tidewater region of Virginia, Williamsburg dates to 1699, when colonial legislators moved their capital inland from Jamestown. Christened for William III of England, Williamsburg reigned as the center of politics, education, and culture of the Virginia Colony for eight decades of the most formative years in America’s history.
When the Virginia capital was moved to the more centrally located city of Richmond in 1780, Williamsburg reverted to a quiet college town and remained that way until 1926, when philanthropist John D. Rockefeller Jr. visited with his family. Rector of Bruton Parish Church, the Reverend Dr. W.A.R. Goodwin, took this opportunity to approach Rockefeller with his dream of preserving the city’s historic buildings. Bruton walked the oil magnate around the colonial capital, and Rockefeller was impressed with the historical significance of the structures he saw. What began as a modest project to preserve a few key buildings ballooned into a major restoration, encompassing 85 percent of the core of the eighteenth-century town.
Rockefeller later referred to his original stroll through Williamsburg’s historic streets as “the most expensive walk I ever took in my life.” Today, 88 of the 600 historical structures in Colonial Williamsburg are original. The rest are reconstructions.
The historic restoration centers on mile-long Duke of Gloucester Street. Across the street from the inn, the unpaved avenue is anchored on the east by the colonial Capitol—home to the oldest legislative assembly in the New World—and on the west by the College of William and Mary, established in 1693. Roughly in the middle is Bruton Parish Church, with an active body for more than 300 years.
Throughout the month of December, Colonial Williamsburg hosts a staggering array of holiday programs: Christmas teas in restored taverns, evening fife and drum performances by torchlight, caroling and concerts, festive meals, and tours and talks recounting colonial holiday traditions. It kicks off each year on the first Sunday in December with the Grand Illumination. This event echoes the eighteenth-century illuminations that marked the birthday of a reigning monarch, a significant military victory, or perhaps the arrival of a new colonial governor, with fireworks and other festivities. As part of the twenty-first-century celebration, the Christmas season is ushered in with musical performances and three fireworks displays lighting up the night sky simultaneously behind the Governor’s Palace, the Powder Magazine, and the Old Capitol.
Walking down Duke of Gloucester Street, I am smitten with the decorations adorning the doors and windows. In lieu of a carnival of holiday lights, the houses along this street have single candles in their windows (though now they’re electric). Fanciful wreaths and swags crafted from natural materials—fir boughs, magnolia leaves, peacock feathers, dried flowers, oyster shells—hang on doorways and in windows. In colonial times, these would not have appeared until the day after Christmas, Boxing Day, the start of the traditional 12 Days of Christmas that ended with the Feast of the Epiphany on January 6. Although many of the modern-day wreaths are adorned with fruit, including apples and oranges, in early Virginia citrus fruit was a precious commodity. If you were lucky enough to have an orange, you wouldn’t think of wasting it on a wreath.
In its heyday, Williamsburg was a world-class city, where you could purchase pretty much anything you wanted, from fine silks to French wines. Now, as then, small shops punctuate the historic area, and, at the west end, past the ice-skating rink, Merchants Square marketplace holds contemporary retailers and restaurants. We browse the fine colonial-inspired gifts and home accessories at Williamsburg Craft House and stock up on sweet souvenirs at the Wythe Candy Shop before ducking into The Cheese Shop for a tasty lunch.
In colonial times, Christmas Day was just like any other day. English colonists attended services at Bruton Parish Church, then went about their business. The holiday parties, for which the city was well known, started on December 26 and ran throughout the 12 Days of Christmas. Gifts, if given at all, were presented on Boxing Day to those who served you in some way. While consumerism did not play a part in old Williamsburg during Christmastide, excessive eating and drinking did. At lavish holiday parties, often lasting for three days straight, wealthy hosts set out tables teeming with Virginia ham, wild turkey, oysters, figgy pudding, and mincemeat pie, all washed down with cider, Madeira, rum punch, and port.
Admittedly, modern festivities at Colonial Williamsburg are not devoid of commercialism; there’s a separate fee for many of the holiday programs, and dinners in the historic taverns aren’t inexpensive. Even so, we delighted in walking tours of the historic area as well as peanut soup and prime rib at the King’s Arms Tavern. It was uplifting to take a page from the early days of America’s history, hundreds of years before cell phones and social media, to awaken the gentle spirits of Christmas past.
The Williamsburg Inn // Canopy beds and fine period furnishings fill the 62 spacious rooms here. Between the spa, two outdoor pools, and the elegant Rockefeller Room restaurant and Restoration Bar, the inn possesses all the elements of modern luxury, clad in colonial garb.136 E Francis St, Williamsburg, VA, (757) 220-7978
King’s Arms Tavern // One of Colonial Williamsburg’s four historic taverns open to the public for meals, the King’s Arms (established in 1772) serves hearty chophouse fare, accented by colonial recipes. 416 E Duke of Gloucester St, Williamsburg, VA. (855) 240-3278
Rockefeller Room // A contemporary American menu in a refined colonial-era atmosphere is what draws folks to the fine-dining restaurant at the Williamsburg Inn. 136 E Francis St, Williamsburg, VA. (800-447-8679)
Fat Canary // This upscale bistro in Merchants Square dishes up such seasonal American cuisine as crispy Rappahannock oysters, house-made mozzarella with Virginia ham, and free-range guinea fowl. 2410 W Duke of Gloucester St, Williamsburg, VA. (757) 229-3333
Holiday Programs // Held from morning until night every day in December, a panoply of programs runs the gamut from music and dance to dining and decorations. For the complete schedule, check online at colonialwilliamsburg.com/special-events/holidayplanner
The Art Museums of Colonial Williamsburg // Located under one roof, the Abby Aldrich Rockefeller Folk Art Museum and the DeWitt Wallace Decorative Arts Museum both merit a visit. The former houses more than 400 pieces of folk art that John D. Rockefeller Jr’s wife Abby began collecting in the 1920s, while the DeWitt Wallace displays the world’s largest collection of Southern furniture and a significant group of British ceramics among its many treasures. 326 W Francis St, at Henry St, Williamsburg, VA.