A Colonial Christmas in Williamsburg

Toano, Virginia looks a lot like most towns in the U.S. at this time of year: people browsing for Christmas trees, holiday sale signs competing for shoppers’ attention, and flashing lights and inflatable Santas everywhere.

But just a few miles up the road, we were transported back in time to a period in American history when things looked quite different – and the holidays had a very different meaning.

I had never been to Colonial Williamsburg. My wife and I often wanted to take the kids, but we just couldn’t commit to the long drive it would take to get there. Summer was a particularly tempting time, since Williamsburg is a veritable playground for families. Besides the revolutionary city center, there’s Busch Gardens, Water Country USA, Ripley’s Believe It or Not!, Great Wolf Lodge, and enough mini-golf courses to keep the kids on cloud nine for days.

We’ve made it a family tradition to travel somewhere to help us get into the holiday spirit. So, having already covered most of the options in our immediate area, we decided to bite the bullet and book a three-day stay at the Williamsburg Lodge.

When we arrived, we made a beeline for the historic area to see the Fifes and Drums. Witnessing the procession of fully outfitted field musicians make their way down the Duke of Gloucester Street got us in the mood for what it was like in the 18th century. After the parade ended, everyone gathered on the steps of the courthouse to sing carols. With the spirit of Christmas starting to cast its spell, we made our way over the the capital building.

Cry Witch” wasn’t sanctioned as suitable for children, but our 13- and 15-year-old boys loved it. Inside the candlelit building, we witnessed a dramatic recreation of the trial of Grace Sherwood, a woman accused of witchcraft in 1706. The audience was invited to question the witnesses, weigh the evidence, and determine the fate of the “Virginia Witch.” To our surprise, the majority found her guilty (later, we were told the actual verdict was lost in a fire). So much for “good will toward man” with this crowd.

The following day, it felt like we covered most of the 300 acres that encompass this living-history museum. First, an impressive Thomas Jefferson held court with the public. Though the boys had a tough time comprehending his proper English, it’s this authenticity and attention to detail that makes Williamsburg such a special experience.

I was amazed with how almost everything in this town was made just is it was some 250 years ago – even the food. Done only once a year, we could barely watched as the kitchen staff butchered and salt cured a hog that was slaughtered two days earlier. Yes, boys, that’s where ham comes from.

After visiting a shoemaker who makes boots by hand, the printing office showed us how newspapers were produced before the age of automated presses.

And, though it was a tough sell after a long day of touring, we managed to check out the DeWitt Wallace and Abby Aldrich Rockefeller art museums. Thanks to the tall clock case and maps exhibits, the outing proved worthwhile for the kids.

As the sun set, we had just enough left in the tank for an hour-long Tavern Ghost Walk to learn about the spirits that many believe haunt the city to this day. Tired kids and full-service restaurants can be a recipe for disaster, but (thanks to the taverns we had just explored on our tour) we didn’t have to resort to fast food. With a menu of hearty fare, strolling musicians, and a visit from the proprietor herself at Christiana Campbell’s Tavern, the boys were too distracted to fuss.

Although residents did bedeck their doors with wreaths, it was a far cry from modern holiday decorations. Nothing put this in perspective more than the illumination of the Palace Green. For some reason, I thought there was going to be some kind of countdown followed by a dramatic and simultaneous bursts of light on the buildings and trees. Silly me. How could I forget that was no electricity in 1778 – and this wasn’t a theme park. Instead, the Fifes and Drums led a slow march up the green as muskets blasted in front of each house as as it was lit up by cresset torches.

As we drove back north through Toano, the flashing lights and inflatable Santa Clauses somehow felt superficial. After taking a time machine back to the 18th-century, we had certainly caught the Christmas spirit, but in a way we never had before.

Want to plan your own colonial Christmas next year?

Erin Spencer, a senior at the College of William and Mary and one of Traveler‘s star interns, shares her recommendations for making the best of the holiday season in Williamsburg:

Looking for a change of pace this holiday season? Start a new tradition and follow in the footsteps of America’s Founding Fathers. With its rich history and unique shops, Colonial Williamsburg is the perfect blend of the traditional and the contemporary. So, grab your family and friends and check out what this historic Virginia town has to offer for the holidays.

Historic Taverns

For a taste of colonial cuisine, visit one of the four historic taverns that line Duke of Gloucester Street, each of which is known for a different style of food. (For instance, head to Shields Tavern for traditional Southern fare, and Christiana Campbell’s if you’re in the mood for seafood.) But regardless of where you dine, you’ll be able to sample recipes that are straight out of 18th-century cookbooks. Enjoy traditional colonial instruments and songs performed by lively Williamsburg interpreters while you indulge in dishes like rib-eye steak with potatoes and bacon-molasses butter, and chicken breast with apple-cornbread stuffing. But don’t leave without sampling a beer from Alewerks, Williamsburg’s only microbrewery. Just remember to come hungry: these’s no such thing as a light meal (but don’t worry, it’s worth it).

Bruton Parish Candlelight Concerts

Immerse yourself in classical music at one of the oldest churches in the country. Bruton Parish currently boasts nearly 2,000 members and hosts five Sunday services, but you don’t have to be a member to enjoy a small slice of colonial tradition. With more than 120 recitals and concerts on tap during the Episcopal church’s Candlelight Concert series, from 18th-century-style organ recitals to performances by choral groups from all over the country, you’re bound to find something to fit your taste. The soft candlelight glow creates an unforgettable atmosphere as you sit where famous patriots such as George Washington, Patrick Henry, and George Mason once sat. A favorite of locals and guests alike, the concert series is a must for any holiday visitor.

Grand Illumination

Thousands of visitors flock to Revolutionary City to witness a spectacular event inspired by the colonial tradition of placing candles in windows to celebrate holidays and other special events. Spend the day exploring the historic tree-lined streets and checking out the unique boutiques at Merchant’s Square. When the sun begins to set, follow the sound of fifes and drums to the heart of Colonial Williamsburg, where a spectacular fireworks show marks the official start of the holiday season. Once you experience this festive event, you’ll be ready to make it a holiday tradition for years to come.

Yule Log Ceremony

Join the students of the College of William and Mary as they celebrate the end of finals with the annual Yule Log ceremony. Gather in the courtyard of the Wren Building, the oldest academic building still in use in the U.S., to sing carols and hear stories of international holiday traditions. The highlight of the evening occurs when the beloved college president, Taylor Reveley III, appears dressed as Santa Claus and reads How the Grinch Stole Christmas. The students then file through the historic Great Hall to toss a sprig of holly into the fire, casting away their cares from the past year. Between the hot, spiced cider and the merry tunes of William and Mary’s oldest a cappella group, The Gentlemen of the College, it’s impossible not to get into the holiday spirit.