WILLIAMSBURG, Va. — I heard the music first — the piping trills of the fifes and the rat-a-tat-tat of the drums. As the music got closer, the blood-red coats of the fife and drum corps came into view on the village green. The musicians took their positions on the makeshift stage, and the spectators shivered while they anticipated what was to come.
At exactly 6:15 p.m., the fireworks began, and for 20 minutes, sparkling jewels of gold, silver, emerald, ruby and sapphire exploded in the night sky above the Old Governor's Palace.
The Grand Illumination ceremony — which takes place simultaneously at three locations — is but one activity attracting visitors to Colonial Williamsburg for its elaborate Christmas celebration.
The area is a delight to visit at any time, but the town pulls out all the stops during the holidays. Just before Thanksgiving, 15 truckloads arrive bearing pine, holly, boxwood, magnolia and berries, plus 79 cases of fruit, three miles of white pine roping, and 2,550 white pine and Frasier fir wreaths to make the classic Williamsburg wreaths that adorn the doors of more than 80 structures.
The wreaths, the hot apple cider and mulled wine, the candlelight tours of historic buildings make Christmas in Williamsburg a feast for all the senses.
To wander up and down Duke of Gloucester Street, the main thoroughfare, is to step back in time, to when the town was Virginia's capital — moved here in 1698 from Jamestown — and the center of the colony's political life leading up to the American Revolution.
It is easy to imagine George Washington or Thomas Jefferson visiting the shop of Edward Charlton, who fashioned wigs for 18th-century toffs, or discussing politics over dinner at Christiana Campbell's Tavern.
Today's visitors probably aren't in the market for a powdered peruke, as a wig was known in the 17th and 18th centuries, but they will enjoy listening to the wigmaker — a costumed interpreter — tell about his profession and his oh-so-important customers.
Afterward, they can cross the street and hear similar presentations at the apothecary, silversmith, and milliner's and tailor's shops. Ditto the basket maker, blacksmith, cabinetmaker, cooper, printer and binder, and weaver, and the rest of the 20 trades represented in the historic district.
As for the colonial taverns, six of them still serve hungry and thirsty patrons. I didn't have a chance to try all six, but the two I did creaked with the ghosts of famous patrons past.
During dinner at Christiana Campbell's Tavern, I found out from Mrs. Campbell herself (another costumed interpreter) that George Washington's favorite dish was the oysters with roasted corn relish, ham lardons and something called gunpowder remoulade. Thomas Jefferson had a liking for the pea salad, which paired fresh peas from the garden with Granny Smith apples, fresh herbs and eggs. I hated to disagree with the wisdom of two of our founding fathers, but I was partial to the crab cakes, stuffed with the plumpest crabmeat I've ever seen.
During lunch at Shields Tavern, I learned that in addition to being a good place for colonials to get together for a tankard of ale and a little sedition talk, it was a popular spot for gambling on card and dice games. One story has it that two customers who were gambling in a private room accused a fellow customer of playing with loaded dice that had been handed to him through a hole in the wall.
Note: The colonial taverns don't take reservations at lunch, so it's best to get there early to get your name on the list.
Elsewhere in Williamsburg
Whatever else you do in Colonial Williamsburg, you'll want to tour the town's two most important buildings: the Old Governor's Palace, a symbol of royal authority in the New World, and the Capitol Building, where the seeds of revolt from that authority were first sown.
Call me a royalist, but my favorite Williamsburg building is the Governor's Palace. The Georgian-style structure, emblazoned with the royal coat of arms and situated in several acres of formal gardens, was home to seven royal governors and, after the revolution, to Jefferson and Patrick Henry during their tenures as governors.
During the holiday season, the palace is decorated for a ball to be given by Lord Dunmore, one of the royal governors, and his wife. The ballroom flickers with candles, and the dining room is laid out with sweet and savory treats to be enjoyed during respites from the dancing.
My favorite nugget of information came from our guide, who told us that aristocratic guests were required to dance the minuet in descending order of social standing, and that it sometimes took an hour and a half to complete the dance, during which men often left their wives to sneak away and indulge in a hand of cards.
A highlight of any Christmas visit can be had with a candlelight tour of the Colonial Capitol at the opposite end of the town. It was here in 1765 that Henry railed against the Stamp Act, and here, on May 15, 1776, that Virginians voted to instruct their delegation at the Continental Congress in Philadelphia to sever ties with the Crown.
From old to new
In Williamsburg, there's a fragile barrier between the 18th and 21st centuries — all you have to do is cross North Henry Street. It is the boundary between the colonial town and Merchants' Square, a collection of arts, crafts and retail outlets that stretch to the campus of William and Mary College.
Merchants' Square is the place to hop aboard the green-and-red trolley, festooned for the holidays; listen to carols by choirs and bell ringers; stop in for a mug of apple cider or a steaming cup of hot chocolate at any of a dozen charming cafés; or catch a performance of A Christmas Carol at the Kimball Theater.
With 200 holiday events and activities offered throughout the town, it definitely is a season to be jolly.