Making merry in old Virginia

Times Staff Writer

LIKE a town crier of yesteryear, a woman in a long cloak and ruffled mobcap passed by, announcing to one and all, “One minute to the fireworks.”

Small bonfires burned in the dark streets of Colonial Williamsburg, and people gathered around cressets, pole-held iron baskets filled with blazing pine. Candles glowed in the windows of the 18th century houses along Duke of Gloucester Street, the main thoroughfare.

Then -- boom! -- from in front of the octagonal brick magazine, where gunpowder was stored in Colonial Virginia, a great explosion sent up a spectacular shower of red and green rockets, white sparklers and shooting stars.

Clutching a cup of cider and a piece of ginger cake, I wiggled my way through the crowd to a spot from which I could see three firework shows at once: this one, the display at the Governor’s Palace behind me and, to my left, at the Capitol, a reminder of its status as the capital of the Virginia Colony from 1699 to 1780.

It was the first Sunday in December, and I had come to Colonial Williamsburg, 150 miles south of Washington, D.C., for this, the annual Grand Illumination. It ushers in a Christmas season of concerts and plays, hands-on workshops, festive dining events and programs. The community Christmas tree will be lighted Saturday.


I had waited more than two years to snag a reservation at the Colonial Houses, a collection of 28 historic properties much sought after by those wanting to immerse themselves in the 18th century. Equally hard to land at holiday time is a reservation at the flagship Williamsburg Inn, but rooms at the other three Colonial Williamsburg-operated lodgings (see box) may be available as late as October.

The promise of an 18th century Christmas -- absent inflatable Santas and plastic reindeer -- makes this the busiest time of the year here, drawing 40,000 people just for the Grand Illumination.

As charming as all this is, there’s a certain disingenuousness about it: In 18th century Williamsburg, Christmas was a holy day, observed by mandatory church attendance and a festive meal with friends and family. Through Epiphany on Jan. 6, the gentry enjoyed dances and fox hunts. (The Christmas tree wasn’t introduced here until 1842.)

When Colonial Williamsburg held its first organized Christmas celebration -- in 1936, two years after the official opening of the restored town -- the effort consisted of draping electric lights on a few trees.

But it proved such a popular Christmas destination that Colonial Williamsburg has evolved into both a happening and a holiday brand. You’ll find books on holiday decorating and dining the Williamsburg way. That way includes wreaths festooned with natural materials such as oyster shells, cotton bolls, pomegranates, fruit and holly berries, which adorn the doors of the Colonial houses along Duke of Gloucester Street.

Children of the Xbox generation are invited to discover 18th century amusements such as puppet shows and to make their own toys or immerse themselves in a Victorian Christmas magic lantern show.

If this all sounds blissfully noncommercial, a stop at the vast visitor center will quickly disabuse you of that notion. Visitors are encouraged to “shop ‘til ye drop.” Gift shop shelves bulge with Continental Army sets, frontier muskets, spy glasses and tricorn hats.

Still, Colonial Williamsburg is not Disneyland with powdered wigs.

It calls itself America’s largest outdoor living museum and, ultimately, that’s a fair description. As I made the rounds of the “18th century” shops along Duke of Gloucester Street -- the peruke (wig) maker, the apothecary, the shoemaker -- I was struck by how knowledgeable and entertaining the costumed “proprietors” were.

At the wigmaker’s shop, a woman weaving a hairpiece described wigs in Colonial Virginia as “fashion statements that showed off wealth and power.” A good wig was so expensive, she said, that it might be passed from one generation to the next or bequeathed in a will.

A wig was also hot and itchy. The hair -- which might be human, goat or yak -- was woven onto a close-fitting cap of silk or cotton. In summer, it was like “wearing a wet T-shirt” on one’s head, the wigmaker said.

A ‘Colonial bathroom’?

I flew into Washington, D.C., then took the train to Williamsburg, where a courtesy van picked me up. We drove to the Williamsburg Inn, which handles registration for the Colonial Houses.

I was shown to the upstairs room of the two-bedroom Richard Crump House on Francis Street, just a block from the inn and wonderfully located. Unlike some of the Colonial Houses, it had no fireplace, and the room -- at $300 a night -- seemed overpriced. It had twin beds -- Colonial reproductions -- a phone and TV and a temperamental heating system that seemed to have two options: really hot and not hot enough. Because a “Colonial bathroom” is an oxymoron, I wondered why this one -- reminiscent of a ‘40s motel -- hadn’t been updated.

But candles (electric) glowed in the dormer windows and a little Christmas tree (real) was set in one.

It was windy and in the 30s when I set out to explore the historic area, a mile long, half a mile wide and easily walkable. Cars are banned on the main streets from 8 a.m. to 10 p.m.; a shuttle bus makes frequent loops around the area. As night fell, I joined a group taking the “Legends, Mysteries, Myths and Ghosts” walking tour. We were group F -- F “as in ‘freezing,’ ” said Cindy, our costumed guide. Holding high a lantern, she lighted our path, cautioning us to watch our step. The horses that pull the sightseeing carriages had gone before.

We visited three venues, where costumed storytellers wove tales -- some true, some not, Cindy told us -- of bygone days. At the Governor’s Palace, an 18th century “indentured servant” welcomed us to “the finest estate in Virginia,” where “fine folks with their wigs and hair bows are entertained. Of course, the ladies are dressed nice too.” She then shared with us how she retaliated against her mean master by substituting ink for his holy water.

Later, Cindy was asked about the next day’s Christmas parade in the modern city of Williamsburg. She replied, in mock disapproval, that she’d heard Santa would be there, even though “Santa wasn’t even born until 1823" (the year Clement Clarke Moore’s “A Visit From St. Nicholas” was published).

Historical footsteps

THE next morning, I hung out a door sign that read, “Please Clean My Room. Mr. Jefferson is stopping by later for some intellectual stimulation.” I had bought a ticket for the Green Spring Garden Club’s popular 46-year-old annual tour of historic homes. After 46 years, they still don’t have it quite right. Queuing up for almost an hour in the morning cold to get into the first house, I decided to forgo the four others. But at day’s end, minutes from the 6 p.m. closing, I found no line at the elegant brick Palmer House and ducked in. (Garden club members told me it’s best to take the tour after 4 p.m.)

For me, the real reason to visit these historic homes is not to see the Christmas decorations. Most don’t even have trees (18th century, you know). The houses themselves -- painstakingly restored and furnished with antiques and reproductions -- are the attraction. In the master bedroom of the Palmer House, a hostess seated near the fireplace was explaining the function of the waist-high, free-standing fire screen. In the 18th century, she said, many women used heavy, wax-based makeup to cover smallpox scars, and the screen blocked the heat “so their faces didn’t melt.”

Although 18th century Colonials weren’t much for holiday gift giving, shopping is part of the Colonial Williamsburg experience. Shops in the restored or reconstructed buildings in the historic heart are mostly for fun. You can buy mobcaps, wig curlers, cockades (or rosettes) for those tricorn hats. In a shop where “George Washington’s Rules of Civility & Decent Behavior in Company and Conversation” was stacked by the register, I heard a clerk in waistcoat and breeches explaining to a boy that Washington was given the book when he was 13, “and I would think we would all agree that it served him well.”

For serious shopping, including Colonial Williamsburg furniture reproductions and high-end fashions, the destination is Merchants Square, a complex of shops and restaurants at the western end of Duke of Gloucester Street.

Colonial Williamsburg is not a budget destination. The least expensive pass during the holiday season is $29, which includes parking at the visitor center, admission to most sites, the shuttle bus and two free passes for children ages 6 to 17. (Prices for 2006 will be announced soon.) Programs and events requiring ticket purchase are excluded. The pass does include the film “Williamsburg -- the Story of a Patriot,” which is shown throughout the day at the visitor center. Unlike many such films, this is a good one, and it helped me imagine, as I later walked the brick-paved streets, that I was treading in Washington’s footsteps. It was a vivid reminder of the soul-searching of Virginia’s Colonial leaders, who had to choose between loyalty to Britain’s crown and independence.

Most special programs, including concerts and walking tours, cost $15. There also are holiday dining events, which range from $18.95 for an 18th century tea to $105 for a banquet and evening with Dickens (Gerald Charles Dickens, great-great-grandson of the author) or the Thomas Jefferson Wine Dinner.

One that intrigued me was “A Capitol Evening,” an entertainment in the reconstructed brick Capitol. Inside, we sat on benches on either side of the candle-lighted chamber where the lower house of the Colonial Virginia legislature, the House of Burgesses, once met. Could I be sitting where Patrick Henry sat that day in 1765 when he railed against the Stamp Act?

Soon, a man in powdered wig and brocade finery greeted us. “My name is John Pearson,” he said. “I’m a dancing master here at Williamsburg.” He was joined by a bewigged woman in a long blue brocade gown and, as two flutists played, the pair performed a minuet. The evening’s last dance, announced by the master as “a new fad just arrived from London,” was a sort of Virginia reel with six couples -- including people recruited from the audience -- and lots of skipping in circles. Even in the 18th century, apparently, audience participation was a no-fail formula.

Rockefeller rescue

THERE might be no Colonial Williamsburg had it not been for the vision (and the millions) of Standard Oil heir John D. Rockefeller Jr., who funded the restoration, starting in the late 1920s, after the Colonial heart of the city had fallen into disrepair. Rockefeller and his wife, Abby Aldrich Rockefeller, also bought and restored as their part-time home Bassett Hall, an 18th century planter’s house. It’s slightly off the beaten track in the historic area and easy to miss, but definitely worth a stop.

Today, the house looks very much as it did in the ‘40s when the Rockefellers occupied it, a mix of the fine antiques and porcelains he loved and the folk art she treasured but, it’s said, he couldn’t abide. (Much of her collection is on view in the DeWitt Wallace Decorative Arts Museum in the historic area.)

Bassett Hall’s kitchen, remodeled by the last Rockefellers to occupy the house before the family gave it to the not-for-profit Colonial Williamsburg Foundation, has been “de-remodeled” down to its green linoleum floor.

One afternoon, I stopped by Bruton Parish Church, which dates from 1715, and sat in one of the pie box pews, so called because they had doors to keep in the heat supplied by congregants’ foot warmers. Names on pew doors include Washington and Jefferson. It’s a simple church, largely unembellished, save for the red canopy over the royal governor’s chair.

I also visited the public gaol, or jail, a dreadful place where the shackles that once held the hapless prisoners -- runaway slaves, suspected loyalists, thieves -- still dangle from the walls of the dank, dark brick cells.

At Wetherburn’s Tavern, one of the 88 original buildings, a guide showed us a public bedroom, where in Colonial times 7 1/2 pence bought a night’s lodging in a bed shared with three or four others. “You might or might not know your bed partners,” our guide said. The sheets were changed several times a month.

A steady rain had turned into a brief snow flurry on my last day, just before I stepped into the apothecary shop. In the 18th century, the apothecary was sort of a doctor practicing without a license. (But, then, barbers extracted teeth.) In a small town like Williamsburg (population about 2,000 in those days, half of whom were slaves), reputation was a better regulator than any license, the woman behind the counter explained. She asked what was ailing me and, pulling an affliction out of a hat, I said, “Arthritis.” She brought out camphorated oil and added, “You shouldn’t be walking around in the rain.”

Williamsburg beckons visitors to “connect with your inner 18th century,” and interpreters, called “people of the past,” do a great job of forging that connection. It’s cute but not cloying.

The fifers and drummers, real crowd-pleasers, were out for the Grand Illumination, fifing and drumming as I made my way to the Governor’s Palace for the candlelight tour post-fireworks. In the dimly illuminated entrance hall, a greeter in frock coat and breeches welcomed us “on behalf of Lord Dunmore, his excellence” (the last royal governor of Virginia). One could almost believe it was Christmas 1774, just as he said it was.

We passed through the palace ballroom, where a harpsichordist played, and into the dining room, where the long table was set for a festive Christmas meal. There were meats and fish and blueberry tarts that, our hostess explained, Colonials ate as a side dish, not a dessert. Several people in our group heartily endorsed that custom.

Back in my room at the Richard Crump House, I packed my bag and hung out the sign that read, “Do Not Disturb. I’m resting up after my journey through the 18th century.”



Colonial ambience


From LAX to Richmond, Va., United, US Airways, Continental, Air Tran, Delta, American and Northwest have connecting service (change of plane).

To Washington, D.C. area’s National Airport, Alaska has nonstops. Delta and American have direct flights (with one stop), and America West, Air Tran, United, Northwest and American have connecting flights (change of plane).

To suburban Washington, D.C.'s Dulles Airport, American and United have nonstops, and Delta, American, Continental, Northwest and United have connecting flights.

Restricted round-trip fares begin at $298 to all three airports.


Colonial Williamsburg Co. operates five lodgings, three within the historic area and two close by, with a range of prices. For lodging and dining reservations, (800) 447-8679,

Williamsburg Inn, 136 E. Francis St.; The English Regency-style inn, opened in 1937 and renovated in 2001, exudes Old World elegance. Doubles $400-$500.

Colonial houses. For an 18th century experience in the heart of the historic area. The 28 lodgings, some with fireplaces and gardens, are furnished with period reproductions and antiques (registration at the Inn). Doubles $250-$350.

Williamsburg Lodge, 310 S. England St. Some rooms in this, one of the original Colonial Williamsburg hotels, have private terraces overlooking gardens. Special $200 flat rate during renovation, which will continue through 2006.

Woodlands Inn & Suites, 105 Visitor Center Drive. Moderately priced, family-friendly hotel adjacent to visitor center, where guests can catch shuttle to historic area. Family restaurant, huzzah! Rooms with two double beds, $120-$150.

Governor’s Inn, 506 N. Henry St. Three blocks from the historic area, this 200-room hotel is the most budget-conscious accommodation. Rooms with two double beds, $60, including continental breakfast.

Outside Colonial Williamsburg but conveniently close by car, visitors will find a wide choice of chain motels/hotels.


Regency Room, the Williamsburg Inn. Travel back to a time when coats and ties were mandatory and there was live music to dine by (dancing on weekends). There’s even Caesar salad tossed tableside. Main courses $23-$37.

King’s Arms Tavern, Duke of Gloucester Street. Specialties such as peanut soup, game pye and roast beef are dished up along with 18th century ambience at this pub, founded in 1772. Main courses $24-$39.

Blue Talon Bistro, 420 Prince George St., Merchants Square; (757) 476-2583, “Serious comfort food” with a French accent -- onion soup, coq au vin -- served in a smart 21st century setting. Entrees $14.95-$22.95.


Colonial Williamsburg, (800) 447-8679,

Virginia Tourism Corp., 901 E. Byrd St., Richmond, VA 23219; (800) 932-5827,

-- Beverly Beyette