In the spring, when I was working in Richmond, our family visited Colonial Williamsburg for a day, thanks to my friend Bryan, who works there. On the way home, I suddenly remembered when I was ten, and I was in the library, reading American Girl magazine. They had a gorgeous feature on Christmas at Colonial Williamsburg. I remember finding those photo spreads wildly compelling. I tried to convince my parents that we should do this for the holidays, but that request didn’t get very far, for several reasons. I was obsessed with this idea for years. I told my kids and JC about this long-dormant Christmas wish, and they all agreed that we should do it this year!
Our kids don’t need more stuff, and so we usually try to make one or more of their Christmas presents a trip or experience. My mom and step-dad like to do this too, like a couple years ago when they rented an Air B&B a couple hours away and treated us all to a vacation and “Hawaiian” themed holiday. I asked them if they wanted to be part of our Colonial Christmas, and they immediately started looking for a place to stay (they treated us to a very fun little resort, I covered the tickets, and everything else we kind of vaguely split). The resort where we stayed had several pools, including one outdoor one that was heated enough that the kids could swim outside in December (!), as well as several game rooms and a little movie theater.
The one serious downer of the whole trip was that JC got awfully sick (not contagious, long story) the day before we were leaving, so he didn’t end up coming with us. So we were worried about him. But mostly the bad thing there is that he missed out, because we had an incredible time.
Colonial Williamsburg is fun and interesting pretty much all year, but at Christmas, it’s magical. The houses are all decorated with creative wreaths, the shops all have little festive touches, there are extra bonus events. It’s very cool.
We enjoyed visiting all the trades people and asking them questions. Petra, especially, got very curious about many aspects of colonial life. She was particularly fascinated with the apothecary and the garden. I love how, even though I’ve always been interested in history and know a fair amount about it, I still learn something from every person. The depth and breadth of their knowledge is truly incredible. They shared not only the practical aspects of their trades, but also how they fit into the broader political and economic systems of the time.
One (positive) change at Colonial Williamsburg since I visited it as a young teenager is that the interpretive lens has shifted to truly try to tell the stories of all the people who lived there in the 18th century, not just the wealthy white men. Notably, while most of the walking tours require an additional payment beyond one’s general ticket price, the “Freedom’s Paradox” tour (where my kids touched bricks that bear the fingerprints of enslaved brick makers, and learned that the inventor of macaroni and cheese was James Hemmings, a chef whom Thomas Jefferson enslaved) is included in the base ticket price, to make it accessible. They also highlight diverse stories in their performance spaces. We heard a sermon by an interpreter performing as the Reverend Gowan Pamphlet and “Midwinter Stories” by a Native American storyteller.
Although there are not nearly as many Black interpreters as there would have been Black people back then, as a proportion of the population (over half of the people who lived in pre-Revolutionary Williamsburg were enslaved, and, in addition, many free Black people also were part of that community), there are far more Black interpreters than there were twenty years ago. They also work in many of the trades (as would have been the case in the time period); my vague memory from the ’90s was that the Black interpreters I met only told the stories of domestic servants and farm laborers. This had the effect that a Black tradesperson was as likely to tell us about the particulars of making barrels as the injustice of slavery. At least 95% of the people we talked to or saw perform included the stories of enslaved, free Black, and Native Americans, regardless of the speaker’s own racial identity. I appreciated this change immensely. I want my kids to learn true history, even when it is painful.
The one place we went where nobody mentioned slavery at all was the Governor’s Ball. At this event, everyone was in character as real people from the period (Bryan played the governor!). They would have been the wealthiest people in the community, and they probably didn’t think too much about the inner lives of the people who made lavish events like this one possible. We had so much fun at this event. I sometimes get uncomfortable when people are performing “at” me in this kind of context (part of me wants to shout, “I’m a theater-maker, too! We can get a little meta! You don’t have to pretend with me!” which is a very silly and unhelpful impulse). But this was just absolutely delightful, from the moment Bryan welcomed us to the mansion until the gates shut behind us on our way out. The event had a framing story, about a young couple navigating their engagement, so everywhere we went, performers were sharing bits of gossip about the young lovers as well as other important people in society. A dancing master taught several period dances (one of the ladies, on learning I was from Rockingham County, said, “We hear there’s much less… decorum at your dances out west!”). George Washington gave a speech. And the kids got so into it, that even Petra, who scorns any story that has the least bit of romance, rushed to the front of the crowd to witness the proposal when it finally happened.
The other special event we went to was the Grand Illumination. The fife and drum corps marched in the streets and then performed a short concert. Bryan performed a ghost story he had written, about Williamsburg’s reawakening in the 1940s. And then the Palace lit up with a truly incredible fireworks show. The kids haven’t seen fireworks in a few years because we’ve been avoiding crowds. These were worth the risk.
On our last day, we visited the Art Museums that are part of Colonial Williamsburg. I hadn’t ever been there, and they were very cool. They had a lot of folk and decorative art. Petra collected several images for her pottery inspiration album.
And then, tired, and with our heads crammed full of fascinating new ideas and information, we headed home. We made one quick stop when we got back to town to get JC some Kline’s. Ice cream is the best medicine (but a small consolation for missing out on this fun trip).