Tucked amid 300 acres of pristine Virginia wilderness, The Colonial Williamsburg Foundation is a bustling outdoor educational museum that invites visitors to its Historic Area all year round. Yet there’s something truly special about a visit during the fall and winter holidays—a particularly festive time of year that somehow animates the 18th-century city in new and colorful ways.
A visit to historic Williamsburg during the holidays is an inspired way to embrace the spirit of the season—and a particularly good time to explore the area’s historic trades, to boot. As the days grow shorter and the nights grow colder this time of year, you’ll discover enduring traditions, charming decorations, and a spirit of community that genuinely warms the heart. With everything from one-of-a-kind holiday programs to festive workshops to world-class dining, see why The Colonial Williamsburg Foundation is a must-visit destination during the holiday season.
During the Revolutionary War and throughout the colonial era, illuminations held a special place in the lives of Williamsburg settlers. From the sparks of firing guns to the lighting of celebratory fireworks, there were many occasions throughout the year that called for bursts of light in the dark of night—and more often than not, this light signified joyous events, such as a military victory or the arrival of a new colonial governor.
Today, Americans are fortunate to enjoy brilliant lights all around us, just about anywhere we may turn. But in the living history museum that is The Colonial Williamsburg Foundation, there’s still reason to celebrate even the smallest of sparks. And during the holidays, this celebration truly comes to life with the Grand Illumination. Taking place on three days in December 2022 (on the 3rd, 10th and 17th of the month) this spectacular event officially kicks off the holiday season.
To enjoy it to the fullest, begin by strolling through the Historic Area—the one mile by one-and-a-half mile town center 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 musical performances on stages set up throughout the town center, all before a dramatic fireworks display sets off at the Capitol and the Governor’s Palace. Seeing historic Williamsburg illuminated from above during the holidays 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, there’s no better place to start than the Liberty Ice Pavilion. With the historic and colorful Duke of Gloucester Street as your backdrop, this family-friendly ice skating rink is the ultimate way to soak up the sights, sounds and smells of the holiday season. Even beginners are sure to feel the holiday spirit as they lace up a pair of skates and take to the ice. Afterward, warm up (or if you’re a pro skater, cool down!) with a variety of refreshments available just off 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 for you to spend an abundance of time enjoying the outdoors, no matter the time of year, its art museums offer a compelling reason to come inside once in a while. Throughout Williamsburg, you’ll find exceptional works of art along with handmade crafts and other artisanal goods. And the city’s collection of museums and galleries offer a variety of styles and techniques to browse and even buy.
During the holiday season, the Art Museums of Colonial Williamsburg also provide a particular treat: a 16-foot tree decorated with over 2,100 handmade ornaments—each inspired by the works at the Abby Aldrich Rockefeller Folk Art Museum (a must-visit during your trip). It’s the ultimate holiday tree, located in one of the most quintessentially American cities, giving you and your family an unmatched holiday experience.
Unique and Enduring Holiday Traditions
Among the many reasons to visit historic Williamsburg during the holidays, you’ll also experience a variety of unique seasonal traditions. One such favorite is the Yule Log Ceremony, an annual celebration of good tidings that has a special—and decidedly more recent—history here. It’s interesting to note that there’s actually no evidence that colonial Virginia ever observed the Yule Log tradition, at least not during the early generations of the settlement. But as a longstanding English and Scottish Christmas tradition, The Colonial Williamsburg Foundation adopted the tradition in 1940, and has been ringing in the season each year since.
To take part in the festivities, you’ll start by holding sprigs of green, which are meant to symbolize past woes. As the Yule Log passes, each person is given the chance to touch their sprig to the log in a gesture that symbolizes warding off evil spirits and ultimately breaking with the past. Once the log is blessed and set aflame in the fireplace, attendees are invited to toss their sprigs onto the roaring fire—freed from what’s come before, and ready to receive the blessings of the holiday and new year to come.
The event is filled with caroling and merriment, along with warm drinks and even warmer company. And the fire means it’s just getting started, as next, you’ll follow the procession from the Capitol circle to Market Square with fellow revelers. It’s a truly singular way to experience the holiday season in America.
Just down the road in Merchants Square, you’ll find even more seasonal sensations right at your feet. Located adjacent to The Colonial Williamsburg Foundation's Historic Area, this retail village has been designed in 18th-century architectural style with careful attention to detail, and it’s home to over 40 shops and restaurants today.
During the holiday season, this bustling town center transforms into a true winter wonderland. Wander through the festive decorations and enjoy the sounds of carols and revelry that fill the air, then browse the many one-of-a-kind shops at your leisure. Many of the artisanal shops sell a variety of goods that are perfect for everyone on your “nice list,” from hand-crafted ornaments to collectibles and other wares. It’s also the ideal spot to pick up a few bespoke presents for yourself to remember your trip.
Another enduring tradition in historic Williamsburg are the Midwinter Stories—a collection of storytelling performances and talks that help illustrate some of the earliest ways of life in the city. Such storytelling plays a large role in many communities, particularly during the winter season. Hear stories from native nations like the Cherokee, Shawnee and Pamunkey among many others, and leave with a better understanding of the many cultures and people who have shaped historic Williamsburg—and more broadly speaking, all of America—over generations.
Of course, the holiday season is made all the more festive for all five senses when there’s a Gingerbread House Display—and there’s simply no more impressive instance than the beloved one at the Williamsburg Lodge each winter. Admire the craftwork of the property’s immensely talented chefs, as they work tirelessly to showcase a new and increasingly whimsical gingerbread house each season.
The holiday spirit is all around at The Colonial Williamsburg Foundation. And at the center of it all are the many historic trades that have so shaped the city’s history, as well as its present and future as the world’s largest living history museum.
Throughout the Historic Area, modern-day practitioners still employ 18th-century tools and techniques to hone their crafts. From the master craftspeople to their budding apprentices who are just beginning to explore the demands of their trades, these hard working artisans play a crucial role in historic Williamsburg’s day-to-day operation. They not only provide goods and services for the businesses and residents in the Historic Area (and beyond), but they are also world-renowned experts in their crafts. They work diligently in their shops each day, while also advising institutions around the world in the history and techniques of their trades.
The holidays are an exceptional time to experience the more than 20 active trades taking place today. Stop into any one of the shops for a “fireside chat” to warm up from the chilly winter air outside, and get to know the ins and outs of these historic crafts for yourself.
Among the holiday favorites here, be sure to visit the Engraving Shop. This colonial-era trade first came about as a means of signifying ownership, which was as important during the early settlement years as it still is today. Here, you can also explore a range of beautified objects, from silver, gold, copper, brass and bronze metal goods that have been engraved by the Foundry and Silversmith shops.
Next, stop in at the Weaver, where you can browse a selection of fine flax, cotton, and wool materials and observe as they are transformed from a simple organic mass into orderly fabrics. These threads, materials and textiles form the backbone of the shirts, shifts, blankets, and even the military uniforms of Williamsburg—from the city's earliest days to the present.
Nearby, the Cabinet and Harpsichord Maker will demonstrate the true breadth of the woodworking craft, with everything from tables, chairs and desks to more specialized pieces like the harpsichord (a stringed keyboard musical instrument) on view. When you finish there, stroll over to the Tin Shop where you can explore the incredibly varied uses for tin, then and now. During the Revolution, tin was used to make kettles, cups, lanterns and much more, and today, tradespeople are still crafting the metal into an array of surprising uses.
And while wreath-making is not itself a trade, a visit to historic Williamsburg during the holidays still means you’ll encounter an astonishing variety of handcrafted wreaths unlike any you’ve seen before. In fact, each of the Historic Trade shops imagines its very own wreath to contribute to the holiday decorations. These 18th-century-inspired creations are unique in the world, and each pertains to the trade of the shop that produced it—for example, with the Tin Shop tying in a tin element, and the Weaver featuring various fabrics and textiles. It’s a holiday experience you won’t find anywhere else, and it’s waiting for you at The Colonial Williamsburg Foundation this winter.