Williamsburg, Virginia

At any time of the year, Colonial Williamsburg is a fascinating place to visit. Though the Colonial Williamsburg Foundation makes sure that they are not losing money, they still do an excellent job of staffing the restored area with friendly guides, talented re-enactors, and skilled artisans.

We are especially fond of visiting during the Grand Illumination, which is held each year on the first Sunday of December. The Grand Illumination is derived from a colonial (and English) tradition of placing lighted candles in the windows of homes and public buildings to celebrate a special event. One such event would be the King's (or Queen's) birthday. The celebration usually included fireworks and the firing of cannon or other firearms.

Colonial Williamsburg has chosen to hold a Grand Illumination each year during the Christmas season, even though this would not have been done in colonial times. There are special programs during November and December which illustrate colonial Christmas customs or show off the Christmas decorations and celebration.

The Grand Illumination itself starts in the late afternoon, with performances of both traditional and modern Christmas music at several locations throughout the Historic Area. As evening comes, numerous cressets containing fatwood are lit throughout the Historic Area. Additional activities include fife and drum corps, bagpipe bands, a Grand Tattoo, and the firing of cannon. These culminate in an awesome display of old-fashioned ground-level fireworks at three of the public buildings. I'm really surprised that they haven't burned down one of the buildings yet, since the fireworks literally bounce off their walls and roofs.

A lovely lady spotted on Duke of
Gloucester Street.

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I couldn't persuade her to let me take a
team of oxen home.

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Yes, we have taken carriage rides, but the pictures aren't as good when taken from inside the carriage.
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I could spend the entire visit just watching the blacksmiths at work. They are fascinating. I have no idea what they're doing here.
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These are old-fashioned ground-level fireworks around the Capitol. They used to let you get up close and personal.
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It's a miracle that they don't burn the place down. The fireworks and flames just bounce off the roof.
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We check out the ship replicas at Jamestown Festival Park. You can go on board the largest of the ships.
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I'm fascinated by the 17th century firearms. Here's a demonstration of a matchlock.
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One of the ship replicas under construction. At least one of these replicas has been sailed across the Atlantic.
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A craftsman working on a piece of armor. My wife is nice about letting me watch, but she gets impatient after about 20 minutes.
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Here is some advice for those thinking of attending a Grand Illumination:

First, get a schedule of the special events and order tickets early. We recommend the musical events, particularly those with traditional music or instruments. Dean Shostak is a must-see, but they are all pretty good. The Lanthorn Tours are variable, but are a good way to use up time after the Grand Illumination in order to let the streets clear. The Ball at the Governor's Palace is great some years and stinks others. Lately, it has been a waste of money and we have walked out on it at least once. Just remember to order early!! Drop me an e-mail if you want an opinion on any of the events.

Second, stay in Williamsburg the night before and the night after. The traffic will be bad. (They will have over 40,000 people in the Historic Area.) Get there early, spend the day as a tourist, and plan on leaving late. As I said above, take a Lanthorn Tour or get tickets for some other special event.

Third, take plenty of water, a blanket, and warm clothes. There are drinks for sale, but they frequently run out of both hot and cold drinks. You will need to stake out a place to watch the fireworks (we usually go to the Capitol) at least a couple hours in advance and the ground will be hard and cold. Weather varies, so be prepared. We have been there when it was 25 degrees F and when it was 65 degrees F. Layer your clothing and be prepared for anything.

Be sure to check out some of the other attractions in the area. A standout is the Jamestown Festival Park, which also has many Christmas programs and talented re-enactors. One Christmas I was there for a performance of traditional Christmas music in the focsle of one of the ships. Only a few of us could fit in there, so it was a personal experience. The music was played on simple instruments, like the penny whistle, and was wonderful. It was a great Holiday experience!

Anyway, give it a shot. You can contact the Colonial Williamsburg Foundation for tickets and information at 800-HISTORY or at www.history.org.

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