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Christmas In Colonial Williamsburg | Winter 2008 Out Here Magazine

Illuminations made the holiday merry and bright

By Carol Davis
Photography courtesy of Colonial Williamsburg

Christmas in 18th-century Williamsburg wasn't about gift giving, Santa Claus, or even December 25. Instead, the holiday season, consisting of the Twelve Days of Christmas from Dec. 25-Jan. 5, was a decidedly adult-centered holiday, filled with visiting, feasting, parties, minimal decorations, and perhaps a few simple gifts.

But the children surely must have loved the illuminations.

Special events, such as Christmas, customarily were observed with illuminations — placing candles in windows or cupolas, firing guns into the air, and lighting fireworks.

The tradition continues now at Colonial Williamsburg on a grander scale, with the "Grand Illumination" fireworks show and celebration, an annual event scheduled for the first Sunday of each December. This year, it is scheduled for Dec. 7.

"Illuminations marked great military victories, the birthday of the reigning monarch, or an important holiday," says Tim Sutphin, who oversees the illumination each year. "It's the opening signature event for the Christmas season."

Colonial Williamsburg's Christmas event grew to what it is today from a simple march.


Years ago, the celebration consisted of the Fifes & Drums marching down the main thoroughfare, Duke of Gloucester Street, as the town crier announced to the businesses and residents along the street to illuminate their lights, Sutphin says. As they progressed down the street, windows were bathed in candlelight.


As the event became more popular, the number of guests swelled so much that it became too crowded for the Fifes & Drums to march. So, the celebration was divided between four areas of Colonial Williamsburg — the Palace, powder magazine, and the south and north sides of the Capitol — and timed so that identical fireworks are seen simultaneously at each site, Sutphin says.


Fireworks are in the 18th-century style, in that they are lower, rising to a maximum of about 150 feet, Sutphin says. Those featured include Roman candles, starbursts that shimmer down, and ground spinners.

Seasonal music performed by the Fifes & Drums, balladeers, and community choirs also rotates among the four staging areas so all guests can enjoy it, he says.


A town crier no longer directs the lighting along Duke of Gloucester Street, but cressets — street lanterns — stoked with fatwood or pitch pine line the street with a beautiful ambient light, Sutphin says.


"If I smell a cresset fire now, it takes me right to December," he says, "and it creates such a nice, yellow fiery light."


Carol Davis is editor of Out Here.