Michael Schuman

Christmas at Colonial Williamsburg

By MICHAEL SCHUMAN
© St. Petersburg Times


For a holiday the way it must have been, visit Colonial Williamsburg. And bring your appetite.

WILLIAMSBURG, Va. -- Forget your plastic Santas and tangles of multicolored lights. When Colonial Williamsburg gets decked out for Christmas, it is in full 18th century regalia. The buildings wear garlands of green embellished with pineapples, pine cones, holly berries and other fruits and decorations.

From the apothecary to Christiana Campbell's Tavern -- and at all the private homes in between -- Christmas around the 173-acre re-creation of Virginia's colonial capital is as sincere a holiday celebration as you will find at a tourist destination, unsullied by 20th century, or even 19th century, commercialization. No Muzak versions of Jingle Bell Rock, no Rudolph the Red Nosed Reindeer. And no nostalgia for the scenes depicted in the prints by Currier and Ives -- in the colonial period depicted, Currier and Ives haven't been born.

But there is enough Christmas spirit to permeate the hardened soul of even the most dour Scrooge. (Of course, Scrooge has not been created yet, either.)

When we enter the James Geddy House, frozen in the year 1770, we see holly trimmings surrounding picture frames and decorating the parlor mantle. James and Elizabeth Geddy and their daughters, Nancy and Mary, are engaged in the then-popular game of goose.

Before we exit, they break into a rousing rendition of God Rest Ye Merry Gentlemen, and some of us visitors join in.

Colonial Williamsburg is a re-creation of the colony's capital, which fell in stature when the government was moved to Richmond. Gradually the city declined, its historic buildings ignored and left to decay.

Williamsburg's heritage was largely ignored for most of a century. But in 1926, John D. Rockefeller was persuaded by a local minister to finance the archaeological resurrection of the town.

Nearly 90 original buildings have been restored, and there are hundreds of authentically reproduced structures. Many of the buildings are privately owned and occupied, which adds an unusual touch to touring on its broad streets.

Part of the attraction's lure is attention to detail and the emphasis on seasonal changes in the lifestyle of the colonists on the even of the American Revolution.

Thus visitors at this time of year find that 18th century folks celebrated Christmas much the way as citizens today do, with music, social gatherings and feasting (plus more feasting), but without contemporary frills.

In the Wythe House, a young woman in smock and cotton dress stirs a sweet potato pudding while a duck roasts on a spit. In the Wythe House dining room you may encounter a table set for a winter repast: roast duck, Yorkshire Christmas pie, scalloped oysters, side dishes and, at each seat, a roll tucked inside a linen napkin.

Adorning the Christmas dinner table across the Palace Green at the Peyton-Randolph House is an enticing dessert called a hedgehog. Shaped like the spiny little critter for which it is named, this hedgehog's body of almond paste is stuck with slivered blanched almonds to look like bristles, while two currants resemble eyes.

Of the boiled turkey on the Peyton-Randolph House table, our guide says, "People then took pride in having their Christmas turkey come out white, so they put white oyster sauce on top. Anyone could make a brown turkey."

Unfortunately, modern laws prevent sampling. For a taste of the 18th century, head to any of the reconstructed village's four taverns.

Or for a melange of entertainment and feasting offered only at Christmas, reserve a seat at the early Virginia pig-out known as the groaning board. The name stems from the reports that the table groans from the weight of all the food.

At this meal, you can dip your sippets (bread sticks) into Virginia peanut soup and chow down on salmagundi, an 18th century chef's salad. Meanwhile, the Williamsburg Madrigal Singers belt out Deck the Halls and We Wish You a Merry Christmas.

Savor Southern fried chicken as your host renders A Coventry Carol on his crooked-necked baroque lute.

The main course, roast top sirloin of beef, is presented by waiters in step behind a marching fife and drum band. The dinner's master of ceremonies gleefully unreels puns, and to the chorus of protests from the diners, he asserts, "That's another reason why this feast is called the groaning board."

With or without puns, the atmosphere is convivial. Strangers placed side by side at the tables chat easily with one another, comparing the day's adventures or wondering aloud just what is figgy pudding?

Diners also learn another gritty fact of the colonial era when one visitor asks for a steak knife to replace his dull one. "This the only kind we have," responds a waiter. "Back then they ate with their hands."
Caroling, decorating -- and work

A few diners are encouraged to join the Williamsburg Dancers on stage in a Virginia reel.

More music is heard outdoors, and visitors can join in here, too. Carol sings are held in different locations, at the Courthouse one night, the Capitol or Palace Green the next.

On the nightly lantern tour (spell it "lanthorn" and you will pass as a colonial expert), a guide leads all by lantern light through the streets and into the homes.

Daytime activities include Christmas decorations tours and workshops, affording a look at the crafting, care and symbolism of those luscious garlands seen on so many front doors.

Visitors also hear the truth about these decorations -- they are not historically accurate but are created solely for tourists' benefit.

Yet all are made from materials that would have been available in 18th century Williamsburg, and the original residents of Virginia's colonial capital really did deck the interiors of their homes with garlands and greens.

Of course, work did not stop during the Christmas season, any more than it does now. The shops and houses on or around Duke of Gloucester Street are open on a rotating basis, with nearly all accepting visitors daily.

Here, visitors learn why "flipping your wig" actually took place in the 18th century, when they meet the wigmaker. And they can examine fashionable hats and gloves on which the mop-hatted milliner is applying finishing touches.

There is the opportunity to see a "modern" old-fashioned Christmas. Drive about 8 miles to Carter's Grove, a James River plantation that is part of the Colonial Williamsburg Foundation.

The Carter's Grove sitting room is dominated by an 8-foot cedar Christmas tree with Tinkertoys and an electric train underneath, which jog the memories of some visitors. The time frame represented is 1940, when owner Archibald McCrea and his wife, Molly, began restoration of the plantation.

Recorded carols by Bing Crosby reinforce the feeling, but it can be a surprise to hear him crooning, over the period radio, God Rest Ye Merry Gentlemen -- the same carol the Geddy family sang in their 1770 parlor. Proof that classics survive the passage of time.

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