Nestled on 300 acres of pristine Virginia wilderness, the Colonial Williamsburg Foundation is a bustling outdoor museum that welcomes visitors to its historic district year-round. Still, there is something special about visiting during the autumn and winter holidays – a particularly festive time of year that revitalizes the 18th-century city in new and colorful ways.
A visit to historic Williamsburg during the holiday season is an inspiring way to soak up the spirit of the season — and a particularly good time to explore the area’s historic trades. As the days grow shorter and the nights colder at this time of year, you’ll discover enduring traditions, charming decorations and a community spirit that truly warms the heart. From unique vacation programs to celebratory workshops to world-class dining, see why the Colonial Williamsburg Foundation is a must during the holiday season.
During the Revolutionary War and throughout the colonial period, illuminations held a special place in the lives of Williamsburg settlers. From the sparks of firing cannons to the lighting of celebratory fireworks, there were many occasions throughout the year that called for flashes of light in the dark of night – and most often that light signified joyful events, such as a military victory or the arrival of a new colonial governor.
These days, Americans are fortunate to enjoy brilliant lights all around us, almost everywhere we turn. But at The Colonial Williamsburg Foundation living history museum, there’s still reason to celebrate even the smallest spark. And during the holiday season, this celebration really comes to life with the Grand Illumination. Taking place over three days in December 2022 (on the 3rd, 10th and 17th of the month), this spectacular event officially kicks off the holiday season.
To fully appreciate it, begin with a stroll through the Historic Area – the 1 mile by 1 mile downtown area that has been the hub of activity in historic Williamsburg for centuries. There you can browse the unique 18th-century inspired decorations that line the shops and squares. Then settle in for live music performances on stages set up throughout the city center before a dramatic fireworks display at the Capitol and Governor’s Palace. Seeing historic Williamsburg illuminated from above during the holiday season is truly an experience like no other.
Liberty Ice Pavilion on Duke of Gloucester Street
For a more active way to engage with historic Williamsburg during the holiday season, what better place to start than at the Liberty Ice Pavilion. With the historic and colorful Duke of Gloucester Street as a backdrop, this family-friendly skating rink is the ultimate way to enjoy the sights, sounds and smells of the holiday season. Even beginners get in the holiday mood when they lace up a pair of ice skates and go on the ice. Afterwards, warm up (or cool down if you’re a pro skater!) with a variety of refreshments available right next to the rink, from hot cocoa to seasonal treats like apple cider.
The Art Museums of Colonial Williamsburg
While this 18th-century city makes it easy to spend plenty of time outdoors any time of year, its art museums offer a compelling reason to venture inside every now and then. Exceptional works of art can be found throughout Williamsburg along with crafts and other artisanal goods. And the city’s collection of museums and galleries offers a variety of styles and techniques to browse and even buy.
During the holiday season, the Art Museums of Colonial Williamsburg also offer a special treat: a 16-foot tree adorned with over 2,100 handcrafted ornaments – each inspired by the works of the Abby Aldrich Rockefeller Folk Art Museum (a must-see during your trip) . ). It is the ultimate Christmas tree, located in one of the most quintessential American cities, offering you and your family a holiday experience like no other.
Unique and enduring holiday traditions
Among the many reasons to visit historic Williamsburg on vacation, you’ll also experience a variety of unique seasonal traditions. One of those favorites is the Yule Log Ceremony, an annual celebration of the good news that has a distinct – and decidedly more recent – history here. It is interesting to note that there is actually no evidence that colonial Virginia ever kept the Yule Log tradition, at least not during the early generations of settlement. But as a long-standing English and Scottish Christmas tradition, the Colonial Williamsburg Foundation adopted the tradition in 1940 and has been ringing in the Christmas season every year since.
To join in the celebrations, start by holding green branches meant to symbolize past afflictions. As the Yule Block passes, each person has the opportunity to touch the tree trunk with their branch, a gesture symbolizing ward off evil spirits and ultimately breaking with the past. Once the log is blessed and lit in the hearth, participants are invited to throw their branches into the roaring fire, freed from what has come before and ready to receive the blessings of the holiday season and the New Year to come.
The event is filled with Christmas carols and merriment, along with warm drinks and even warmer company. And the fire means it’s only just getting started, because next you’ll join other revelers to follow the procession from Capitol Circle to Market Square. It’s a truly unique way to experience the holiday season in America.
Just down the street in Merchants Square you’ll find even more seasonal sensations right at your feet. Adjacent to the Colonial Williamsburg Foundation Historic District, this retail village was designed in the architectural style of the 18th century with meticulous attention to detail and is now home to over 40 shops and restaurants.
During the holiday season, this bustling city center transforms into a true winter wonderland. Stroll through the festive decorations and enjoy the sounds of Christmas carols and celebrations filling the air, then browse the many unique shops at your leisure. Many of the craft shops sell a variety of goods perfect for everyone on your “beautiful list,” from handmade ornaments to collectibles and other goods. It’s also the ideal place to pick up some customized gifts for yourself to commemorate your trip.
Another enduring tradition in historic Williamsburg is Midwinter Stories – a collection of storytelling performances and lectures that help illustrate some of the earliest ways of life in the city. Especially in the winter season, such storytelling plays a major role in many communities. Hear stories from Native Americans like the Cherokee, Shawnee, Pamunkey and many others, and leave the tour with a better understanding of the many cultures and people that shaped historic Williamsburg – and more broadly, all of America – for generations.
Of course, the holiday season becomes all the more festive for all five senses when there’s a Gingerbread House display – and there’s simply no more impressive example than the beloved one at Williamsburg Lodge each winter. Admire the craftsmanship of the estate’s immensely talented chefs, who work tirelessly to present a new and increasingly whimsical gingerbread house each season.
There’s a holiday spirit at the Colonial Williamsburg Foundation. And the focus is on the many historical crafts that have shaped the history of the city as well as its present and future as the world’s largest living history museum.
Throughout the historic area, modern day practitioners still use 18th-century tools and techniques to hone their craft. From the master craftsmen to their prospective apprentices just beginning to explore the demands of their craft, these hardworking artisans play a vital role in the daily operations of historic Williamsburg. Not only do they provide goods and services to the businesses and residents in the Historic Area (and beyond), but they are world-renowned experts in their craft. They work diligently every day in their shops, advising institutions around the world on the history and techniques of their craft.
The holidays are an exceptional time to catch the 20+ active trades happening today. Stop at one of the shops for a ‘fireside chat’ to warm up from the cold winter air outside and learn the ins and outs of these historic crafts for yourself.
Among holiday favorites here, be sure to visit the Engraving Shop. This colonial-era trade first arose as a means of marking property, which was as important in the early years of settlement as it is today. Here you can also explore a range of embellished objects including silver, gold, copper, brass and bronze metalware engraved by the foundry and silversmiths.
Next, visit the Weaver, where you can browse a selection of fine flax, cotton and wool materials and watch them transform from simple organic matter into neat fabrics. These threads, materials, and textiles form the backbone of Williamsburg’s shirts, vests, blankets, and even military uniforms—from the city’s early days to the present day.
Nearby, the Cabinet and Harpsichord Maker demonstrates the true breadth of woodworking craftsmanship, with everything from tables, chairs and desks to more specialized pieces such as the harpsichord (a musical instrument with strings) on display. When you’re done there, stroll over to the Tin Shop, where you can explore the incredibly diverse uses of tin, past and present. During the Revolution pewter was used to make kettles, cups, lanterns and more, and even today craftsmen continue to work the metal for a number of surprising uses.
And while wreath-making itself isn’t a craft, a visit to historic Williamsburg during the holidays still means you’ll encounter an amazing variety of hand-made wreaths unlike anything you’ve seen before. In fact, each of the Historic Trade Shops envisions their very own wreath to add to the holiday decor. These 18th-century-inspired creations are unique in the world, each relating to the craft of the shop that made them – for example, with the Tin Shop incorporating a sheet metal element, and the Weaver with different fabrics and textiles. It’s a vacation experience you won’t find anywhere else, and it’s waiting for you this winter at the Colonial Williamsburg Foundation.