Colonial Williamsburg is a special destination in the U.S. and one especially enjoyable during the holidays. That’s when Bruce and I visited on assignment for a respected print publication. It was mid-December and the weather was unseasonably warm, which made strolling these historic streets that much more enjoyable.
If you’re like me and have always heard of Colonial Williamsburg, but don’t really know what makes it special, here’s the deal.
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What Makes Colonial Williamsburg Special
Founded in 1698, Williamsburg was a planned community long before we called them that. The little town was originally the capitol of Virginia, so the streets were designed in a perfect grid and extra wide in anticipation of parades and formal events.
Other communities of the day were built along narrow winding streets appropriate for horse and buggy, so streets as wide as Williamsburg’s in a community this old is rare indeed. Although the streets are plenty wide enough for automobiles today, they remain car-free and paved only in dirt and the occasional horse dropping (BTW — they do a great job cleaning up those droppings).
Eventually the state capitol moved to Richmond and Williamsburg began to fade away. But thanks to a minister named William Godwin who grew up in the area and often returned to visit family, Williamsburg got a second chance at life. Rev. Godwin recognized the historical significance of the community, particularly the Bruton Parish Church where he was raised.
So during the Great Depression, he reached out to people like John D. Rockefeller and others who provided the financial backing to preserve and rebuild what we know today as Colonial Williamsburg. As tourists began to find the community, Rockefeller built this hotel — the Williamsburg Inn. That’s where we stayed, although you can stay in a few of the historic buildings. Other modern hotels are a few blocks away.
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The Holidays in Colonial Williamsburg
The Colonial Williamsburg Foundation does a really good job of keeping everything authentic to the colonial period, which is basically from when the Pilgrims landed to when the U.S. declared its independence in 1776. Therein lies the problem with the holidays in Colonial Williamsburg.
The colonists didn’t “do” Christmas like we do today. There was no Black Friday and Cyber Monday and none of the hoopla for a month or more in advance. There wasn’t even Santa Claus and no decoration until just a day or two before Christmas.
Today, the foundation fudges just a bit by allowing for the wreath decorating contest to begin just after Thanksgiving, which for me was a highlight of our visit.
Each wreath is made with dried flowers grown in Williamsburg gardens and other products of the period. Magnolia leaves are abundant in the Virginia peninsula, as are scallop shells, lavender, safflower and tobacco leaves. I particularly loved when the designers incorporated cotton bolls and lotus pods.
But there’s still a flaw in many of these beautiful designs. Fresh fruit was not available in the abundance we know today. It was expensive and rare in the colonial period, so if you could afford it, you would not be putting it out on the front door where birds or strangers on the street could help themselves.
Still doesn’t it look nice?
Worship Services in Colonial Williamsburg
We didn’t get to do what I think would be the most meaningful part of the holidays in Colonial Williamsburg — that is to attend a worship service at the Bruton Parish Church, which dates to 1715.
It is an active Episcopal parish with four services open to the public each Sunday. During the holiday season, candlelit concerts and guest organists fill the sanctuary with an authentic celebration of music and faith that you’re sure to cherish in your memories of every holiday season to come. Tickets sell quickly and we simply didn’t plan far enough in advance.
While it has been completely gutted and restored, this is still the doorway through which George Washington, Thomas Jefferson and others passed as they sought spiritual guidance and peace in their task to form a new nation.
To sit here, in this space, makes a visit to Colonial Williamsburg special any time of the year.