To call Jim McDonnell a Colonial Williamsburg junkie would be putting it mildly: he’s visited a full 151 times (yes, he keeps track). And though he’s come at all times of the year, some of his best memories are from the holiday season. In fact, his very first Williamsburg experience was over the Christmas holiday—in 1959.
McDonnell’s not the only one drawn to Colonial Williamsburg during the holidays. December is one of the busiest times of the year for this living museum. It’s not surprising: very few places so literally bring history to light like the holiday festivities of Colonial Williamsburg. The Christmas season draws yule-tide history enthusiasts of all ages from November 28th through January 4th, when the events calendar is packed with family-friendly programming like Kids’ Weekends, ornament crafting programs, and evening theater performances.
But for most guests, the season’s highlight is the Grand Illumination—a firework-filled event held the first Saturday of December, and the firing of the Christmas drums on Christmas Eve. Performing at both: the ever-popular Fifes and Drums corps—a 98-person troupe of period-dressed, music-making locals between the ages of 10 and 18, which has been around for a whopping 50 years.
To celebrate their 50th anniversary, the corps performed in the Macy’s Thanksgiving Day Parade and July 4th celebrations, and even flew to Switzerland for their first international performance. But that was just a warm-up to the Christmas season at home, where the Corps holds periodic marches down Duke of Gloucester Street (see www.history.org for schedules).
But this season isn’t only about the corps—there’s plenty of other holiday magic as well. Mill about the stages where storytellers, musicians, and craftsman entertain the bundled masses. Pop into Aromas coffee shop, where adults can indulge in a Snickers Latte—a decadent sweetened espresso—and children can order hot chocolates and desserts. And don’t miss the fireworks, which happen on Grand Illumination Night at 6:15 p.m. at three spots. (Hint: viewing at the Capital is most picturesque, but also the most crowded.)
When the festivities end at 7:30, head to the weekend holiday feast at Shields Tavern ($55 adults, $20 children)—the colonial equivalent of Disney’s character breakfasts. Diners mingle with 18th-century interpreters while drinking Wassail—a hot, spiced punch. Brush up on your “Good King Wenceslas” lyrics first, as caroling is also on the menu.
And if you’re there for Christmas Eve, congregate at the Magazine for the 5 p.m. firing of the Christmas Guns, where re-enactors fire rounds from 18th-century Brown Bess muskets and set off a historic canon. From there, see the 5:30 tree-lighting ceremony on the steps of the courthouse. Dine at the Williamsburg Lodge’s Yule Tide Supper ($80 per person), punctuated by Christmas songs and stories between each course. After a long night’s sleep of dancing sugar plums and revolutionaries, rouse the family for Christmas service at the historic Bruton Parish church or visit at 8 p.m. for an organ concert, one of many in their candlelight concert series.
And what would Christmas be without presents?Children may crave an antique favorite at the exhibit Antique Toys of Colonial Williamsburg or, more likely, at The Toymaker of Williamsburg. Fill their stockings with chocolate confections from Wythe Candy or savories from The Peanut Shop. Take a trip to the delightfully kitsch Yankee Candle Christmas Palace and stick around for candle-making demonstrations, a chat with Santa, and indoor snow showers.
It’s history, it’s the holidays, and hey, you may just run into Jim McDonnell.