Christmas in colonial Williamsburg? Bah, humbug!
But wait, you say. That’s Scrooge’s catchphrase. Written by Dickens. So it’s Victorian.
Several people told me they’d always wanted to see the recreated colonial village decorated for Christmas. And I considered myself fortunate that we had the chance to spend a day in December enjoying the sights of the old rebuilt colonial town before moving on to the real purpose of our visit – a day at the indoor waterpark. But while Colonial Williamsburg was quite festive, it was not really colonially festive.
We arrived in the evening, so we first saw the quaint homes and shops by candlelight. Sort of. The lights look like lanterns, but of course they’re lit with electricity. And there were some surreptitious spotlights, too. So, all in all, the scene throughout the village was much brighter than it would have been in the colonial era, or possibly even up through the days of gaslight.
I realize that complaining about the extra light is pretty picky. The light did enable us to see the elaborate wreaths that the town is famous for. But I think those wreaths are the sort of thing you’d find on a house in the Victorian times, rather than in the colonial era. Even Lou Powers, a historian for Colonial Williamburg, admits that “[n]o early Virginia sources tell us how, or even if, colonists decorated their homes for the holidays.” Looking at the few extant English prints to see how people decorated in the 18th Century, Powers notes that the main feature is usually a large sprig of mistletoe, with some sprays of holly or bay leaves in vases or laying against windowpanes. There’s no evidence of those big fancy wreaths full of fruit and greenery that are de rigeur on the fronts of buildings in Williamsburg today. But Powers notes that the practice of forming greens into wreaths for midwinter decoration dates back at least to Roman times, so we can’t say for certain that the shopkeepers of colonial era Williamburg didn’t have them.
There are a lot more shops in Williamsburg now than there were in colonial days, because we have the recreated old businesses and then modern ones have sprung up to capture trade from the tourists who come to see the old ones. Windows–edged with those wreaths–are full of toys and other gifts for Christmas. But in colonial days, there was little gift-giving, and usually it was just cash, little books or sweets given from superiors to their inferiors. That is, masters to apprentices, slaves, and servants or parents to children. So no one needed to look for the perfect gift for the dad who had everything. He was the one doing the giving. And though children might get a small gift at Christmas, the holiday did not focus on kids the way it does now. Period accounts describe the highlights of the season as balls, foxhunts, and other revelries to which children would not be invited.
And one final Christmas tradition I noticed in Colonial Williamsburg was stacks of “old fashioned” Christmas cards. You’ve probably guessed that those are a Victorian tradition as well. However, it was interesting to discover that there were actually pre-printed Christmas cards of a sort in the 18th Century. Schoolboys in London wrote “Christmas pieces” on special paper with a pre-printed holiday border. But the merchants probably couldn’t sell too many of those — boys haven’t changed that much over the years so you can count on the fact that they wrote as few of those Christmas cards as they could get away with.
The last thing I will say about Christmas in Colonial Williamsburg is, appropriately enough, about the end of it. And the beginning. Since the recreated village relies on the modern commercial tourist trade, it also has to rely on the modern commercial calendar. That means you start selling Christmas before Halloween and have it torn down by Christmas Eve. In the colonial era, however, the “holidays” didn’t start until December 25. The Advent season before that was a time of preparation, not office parties. So the colonial Christmas season started at the time we now end it. And they continued until Epiphany, or Twelfth Night. While I like the wreaths, Christmas trees, Chipmunk Christmas songs and all the other un-colonial parts of the modern holiday, I do wish we could time the celebrations the way they did in colonial days. Celebrating the twelve days of Christmas before Christmas–while still getting ready for Christmas– is a little crazy.
And that’s my excuse for leaving my Christmas decorations up until February.
Quoted material comes from “Christmas Customs” by Emma L. Powers, reprinted from The Colonial Williamsburg Interpreter, vol. 16, no. 4, winter 1995-96 and at the Colonial Williamsburg website.
This article first ran on my website in December 2008