A Williamsburg Christmas

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In eighteenth-century Williamsburg, residents would have attended service and taken the sacrament in Bruton Parish Church, which has been in continuous use since 1715. It was the rector of Bruton Parish, Rev. W. A. R. Goodwin, who persuaded John D. Rockefeller, Jr., in 1926, to finance the restoration of Williamsburg (see “My Gawd, They’ve Sold the Town,” August/September 1981 issue of American Heritage). The pews are marked with the names of important worshipers who sat in them, including four Presidents of the United States —Washington, Jefferson, Madison, and Tyler. Slaves sat in the balcony, which, as I was told when I went to a candlelight concert there, is now recognized as the best place to see the building and hear the music.

Slaves and servants who could be spared had a day off from work, and families often gave them small presents of money, food, or clothing to mark the holiday. But except for Christmas Day itself, the holidays were a time for parties in colonial Virginia. A children’s tutor at one of the large nearby plantations, Philip Vickers Fithian, wrote in his diary in December 1773, “Nothing is now to be heard of in conversation, but the Balls , the Fox-hunts , the fine entertainments , and the good fellowship , which are to be exhibited at the approaching Christmas .”

Food and drink, music and games were essential ingredients in creating this good fellowship. Colonial Williamsburg today provides them all during the Christmas fortnight. Foods may be the Baron’s Feast, the Yuletide Supper, or the New Year’s Eve Collation—all traditional menus served in Williamsburg restaurants. It may be hard to find arrack or syllabub, drinks that the colonists favored, but the wines, beer, and cider that they drank are readily available. In eighteenth-century Virginia the study of music was considered an important social refinement, and during the holidays today music is everywhere—from strolling carolers and musicians to minstrels singing ballads in the restaurants to recorder groups and quartets. In Bruton Parish Church there is chamber music as well as organ recitals and choir singing. (The “true method of singing” Psalms was taught at the College of William and Mary in the 170Os.) The season’s most formal concerts are evening performances at the Governor’s Palace. The musicians, in their eighteenth-century dress, play on instruments like those the colonists actually used; and the lighting is by candle, soft and lovely. I was intrigued to note that the conductor sits rather than stands before the orchestra, which apparently was the custom at the time.

Christmas was celebrated with the shooting of muskets to “make a joyful noise.”

The gentlemen of colonial Virginia were avid bowlers, and the game is played on a bowling green in Williamsburg today. There are also barrel-racing contests to watch, and the pole climb, in which four young men try to climb a greased pole to capture the purse full of prize money at the top. At the Abby Aldrich Rockefeller Folk Art Center there is a full program of children’s events (not necessarily of eighteenth-century lineage). Most popular are the museum dollhouses and a train—modeled after a toy in the collection—that children can ride in.

It is not hard to understand why Colonial Williamsburg, this family-oriented restoration of an important piece of America’s past, draws a million tourists a year. Nor is it hard to see why a visit to Williamsburg during the Christmas fortnight holds a particular enchantment for so many Americans.

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