Doors to the Past

Opening doors to the past, visitors to Colonial Williamsburg can catch a glimpse of how the holidays were celebrated in Virginia during the 18th century.

From Thanksgiving through December, the popular tourist destination offers a variety of programs and special events to mark Yuletide, “the season of festivals.” One of the most spectacular events occurs tonight, Dec. 8, with the 2013 Grand Illumination.

Officials explained, “In the 18th century, special occasions were celebrated with fireworks, bonfires and the lighting of candles in the windows of homes and buildings. Now, each year Colonial Williamsburg holds a Grand Illumination to celebrate the beginning of the holiday season, featuring live musical performances, fireworks, festive meals and many other activities.”

In addition to the Grand Illumination, a wide range of events, concerts and programs are presented during December on the grounds of Colonial Williamsburg.

A 38-page guide to this year’s events can be downloaded at

Holiday programming also is offered at several other historic and educational sites in the Tidewater region of Virginia at this time of year.

At Colonial Williamsburg, colorful, decorative wreaths are placed on the doors and exterior walls of historic buildings, shops and private residences to enhance the seasonal ambiance. Present-day visitors – accustomed to the grand extravagance of Victorian trappings and the glitz of modern decor – notice the simple elegance of the colonial wreaths, made from natural fibers, greenery and native objects.

Besides round and oval wreaths, the holiday decorations include swags of various shapes and sizes and pine roping. Pine from several species are utilized in the holiday decorating scheme.

From intricately detailed, small creations to large, eye-catching displays, the wreaths provide a visual clue to the decorative sensibility of our forebears. Often, the composition and the materials used to decorate the wreath provide a hint of the type of business contained within a building or to the occupation or religious affiliation of the wreath maker.

In addition to the tradition pine garlands and roping, wreaths displayed on buildings in the historic district make use of greenery native to the region. For example, magnolia leaves, boxwood and bayberry appear on many creations. Other native plants, pine cones, holly and seed pods also are incorporated in designs. In a nod to the Tidewater habitat, sea shells can be seen on some wreaths.

Wreath makers often adorn their creations with fruit. Apples, lemons, pomegranates, kumquats, grapes, pears, cranberries and other berries figure into the design of numerous wreaths, as well as in tabletop displays. A pineapple – the colonial symbol of hospitality – occupies a prominent place on holiday wreaths. Vegetative materials, including okra pods, artichokes, cotton pods and dried flowers, also become part of wreaths and swags.

While most of the wreaths sport a Christmas look, at least one building in Colonial Williamsburg sported a Hanukkah-themed wreath during last year’s holiday season. One wreath featured a hen and eggs, while another was adorned with wooden utensils and heart- and star-shaped wooden cutouts.

Walking tours focused on the Christmas decorations are offered, for an additional fee, at specified times. Participants learn about the materials, construction techniques and traditions of Colonial Williamsburg decorations.

When a large group from Wheeling visited Colonial Williamsburg last December, tour guides at the Capitol in the historic district explained that they were interpreting the setting as December 1776, just five months after the establishment of the new nation. At that time, Patrick Henry had been elected governor of Virginia and the state was making the transition from having a House of Burgesses to a House of Delegates.

Nearby, at the Governor’s Palace, the grand mansion was decorated in colonial fashion to welcome guests for holiday parties, dinners and dances. Long tables in the formal dining room were set with fine silver and serving pieces filled with a bounty of elegant fare. In an outbuilding housing the kitchens, interpretative guides demonstrated the baking of breads and preparation of varied dishes that would have been served at a banquet of the period.

Visitors also are welcome to visit Bruton Parish Church, an Episcopal parish dating from 1715. The church building has been called “a colonial architectural masterpiece.” Docents are on hand to share the history of the church and to point out artifacts.

In addition to displaying artifacts recalling colonial days, the church contains historic elements of more recent vintage. For example, the church’s lectern, with carvings depicting angels, was a gift from Theodore Roosevelt. A large Bible, used in worship services for decades and now on display, was a gift from King Edward VII of England in 1907 to mark the 300th anniversary of the settlement at Jamestown, Va., a docent related.

Bruton Parish Church was restored to its colonial appearance in the early 20th century. According to a pamphlet, “A Brief Guide to Bruton Parish Church,” an 1840 remodeling project stripped the interior of its colonial furnishings; the colonial appearance was returned partially when restoration was undertaken in 1905-07.

The docent related that the impetus for a complete return to the church’s colonial look was the arrival of the Rev. W.A.R. Goodwin who became rector of the parish in 1926. At that time, the nave of the church had been subdivided into offices. Soon after Goodwin became rector, he “persuaded John D. Rockefeller Jr. to underwrite the restoration of the entire city, and Bruton Parish Church regained its colonial glory with the completion of the work in 1939,” the pamphlet stated.

The churchyard also is of interest to visitors. “Bruton has probably the largest colonial burial site still existing in Virginia,” the pamphlet stated.

After touring the historic public buildings, guests can visit shops where traditional crafts are still made and sold, dine at pubs and restaurants and browse in other shops. Modern stores, including well-known retail chains, are open adjacent to the historic area.