Wednesday, January 4, 2012

Grand Illumination at Colonial Williamsburg

The main attraction for our trip in our Roadtrek to Colonial Williamsburg in December 2011 was to return to Colonial Williamsburg's annual event - Grand Illumination. It was a British custom to celebrate significant events with an Illumination - the lighting and display of candles in the windows of homes and public buildings. Very special events would be accompanied by fireworks. Among the events that would receive such honor was the celebration of the King's birthday. And since the early days of the Colonial Williamsburg restoration, the historic area of the city has celebrated the birthday of the "King of Kings" with an Illumination - accompanied by the decoration of the homes and buildings in Colonial Williamsburg with elaborate wreathes and greens.

Grand Illumination takes place on the Sunday of the first full weekend in December. The historic area is decked out in natural decorations - you won't see a plastic Santa Claus anywhere. The decorations must be made and represent only things that would have existed in the 18th Century. Now, it is important to understand that the decorations that you see are not historically correct to the 18th Century - when, if any decorations at all were put up, they would have been simple greens hung inside on a window or wall. What you are seeing are decorations that are a traditional Southern style. These are wreathes of greens and fruits and other natural things. But it is lavish and very much what one would like for a traditional Christmas celebration. It attracts tens of thousands every year and the high point is the actual Grand Illumination with fireworks at three locations in the historic area that are set off simultaneously. It is possible to stand in one place and see the same fireworks in the sky in three directions! To say the least, it is very impressive.

We have been going to Grand Illumination since 1996, but this was interrupted for two years when our traveling stopped. With the Roadtrek, we knew we were going back again! Read the last two articles for the details of the trip itself.

The colonial city begins to be decorated just before Thanksgiving and the decorations stay up until after Christmas and New Years Day. The day of the Grand Illumination is always a Sunday and as I said, is the first full weekend in the month of December. That day at about 3 pm things start happening on the street. Colonial performers move up and down Duke of Gloucester Street playing music. You encounter colonial citizens of the city as they walk about. You may see acrobats. Everything is a delight and great fun! Since the morning the number of tourists increase exponentially. Thousands come in for this event. Since everything takes place outside no ticket is required to come, watch, and enjoy. Parking gets to be difficult as the day progresses so this is a day to come early and plan to stay late. There are stages set up at four locations around the city - one on two sides of the Capitol, one at the Palace Green directly in front of the Governor's Palace, and one on Market Square at the Magazine. At around 5:30 pm entertainment is presented on each stage. The acts this year moved from stage to stage so you saw the same entertainment no matter where you were. Years past the acts varied from stage to stage. The fireworks go off when it is dark - and they are spectacular! After the fireworks, things get a bit crazy as you are in a crowd of over 30,000. It is a time to hold onto your family and make your way to the center of Duke of Gloucester Street where two marching fife and drum corps will come from two directions and meet in the middle - all lit by carried torches. This signifies the end of the ceremonies for the day.

Now, I want to share with y0u some of the things that we saw and I will do that through the photos that I took on this trip. What you are seeing are the decorations, the main street in Colonial Williamsburg - Duke of Gloucester Street, and some of the people who work at Colonial Williamsburg who come out in 18th Century persona to bring history to life as it was just before the American Revolution during the Christmas season.


  1. I love that part of the world. So Much History. My sister lives in Maryland near the Antietam Battlefield, so have seen many historic sites in Maryland and Virginia.

  2. We have been to Antietam but that was before the Roadtrek. We hope to be doing a Rev War event at Fort Frederick that is near there in Maryland in the Spring and hope to be visiting Antietam Battlefield again during that trip - and of course I will write all about it!

  3. Thank You for such a wonderful post - that is the way the holiday season should be celebrated . This will be a definite addition to our next years holiday season .
    Safe travels !

  4. I've enjoyed reading your journal/blog. I belong to the RV FORUM and found it through there. I own a Winnebago ERA and will be doing some extensive travelling around North America for the next several years. The winter celebrations at Williamsburg looks like a must attend event for me this year.

    I also appreciate some of your tips and experiences that you have shared while travelling in your Class B. I'm sure they will be helpful during my travels. I have travelled this past winter around Southern Ontario and the Northern States and although our winter was relatively mild ... there were a few cool nights to say the least. Thank goodness for a good furnace.

    Thanks again.