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Revolutionary holidays in Williamsburg

  • Story Highlights
  • Seasonal music on outdoor stages in 308-year-old colonial capital
  • Specially created decor pits designers in contest on wreaths, garlands
  • Interpreters guide visitors on customs, traditions of 18th century Americana
  • Annual holiday festivities are opened each year by a Grand Illumination
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By Porter Anderson
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WILLIAMSBURG, Virginia (CNN) -- Christmas walks into Colonial Williamsburg on boots, battle-dress soft soles padding across cobblestones in the dusk of December's first Sunday.


Turning 50 in 2008, the modern Colonial Williamsburg Fifes and Drums field more than 100 players.

Tens of thousands of "guests," as the city calls its tourists, fall to a hush when they hear a rhythmic click. More than 100 fife-and-drum artists are moving coolly, silently in 18th-century uniforms along lanes and pathways, striding in ghostly precision to the clicks of their drummers. They are eerily stone-faced youths, sturdily ignoring the modern masses pressing to glimpse them.

In the late 1700s, these teens might have been the first killed on fields of American Revolutionary battle. The noncombatant fifers and drummers were the communications units of their armies, ordering attacks, retreats and other maneuvers with their melodies and cadences.

Tonight, their command is a happy one. Their synchronized moves mean the annual Grand Illumination is starting in Williamsburg, and more than 25,000 visitors are reported on the streets to see them. Video Watch moments from this year's Grand Illumination and other sights and sounds of Colonial Williamsburg »

By the time the Colonial Williamsburg Fifes and Drummers' Sgt. Major Lance Pedigo dismisses his forces, they will have signaled three simultaneous 20-minute fireworks displays -- the only noise that can match these drummers' thunder -- and plunged the ancient village into a month-long festival of light, color, artistry and tradition unique in the world. Photo See image galleries from the Royal Governor's Palace in June, and from Colonial Williamsburg's holiday season »

Educational in ways kids think is cool, romantic in ways their parents like, this is the little city that John D. Rockefeller and his wife Abby Aldrich Rockefeller restored so extensively as a "living museum" in the 1920s and 1930s that Franklin D. Roosevelt called Duke of Gloucester Street "the most historic avenue in America."

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And when Queen Elizabeth II was in the United States just last spring for the 400th anniversary of Jamestown, she followed the same path Virginia's colonial-era capital did -- and traveled right on up the road to Williamsburg. The College of William and Mary was chartered by England's monarchs here in 1693, and the colony seated its capital in Williamsburg from 1699 to 1780.

Plunged deep into her summer greenery, Williamsburg shimmers in the steam-heat of Virginia's Tidewater Peninsula with a haunting, sensual mystique that ordains a tryst behind every fragrant hedge. Many visitors find spring and summer holidays there to be the best.

But freshly dressed for her winter holidays, stately windows wreathed against the chill and catawba branches flickering in torchlight, the town displays an array of cozy-clapboard imagery so complete, that the effect is as comfortable as Dickens.

Regular visitors to Europe, the Middle East and Asia may be familiar with that peculiar jolt of recognition that comes with standing kneedeep in history, but North American travel destinations rarely offer such moments. Colonial Williamsburg is an exception.

  • This is where Patrick Henry defied the British Stamp Act in 1765.
  • Thomas Jefferson drew the floor plan of the Royal Governor's Palace in 1779, leaving a detailed guide to twentieth-century restorers.
  • George Washington met here in 1781 with the Comte de Rochambeau of the French expeditionary army, to plot successfully against the British at Yorktown.
  • Now, in December, as visitors move from house to house, from blacksmith to wigmaker, from restored Capitol to the Royal Governor's Palace, they're walking through a contest on all sides of them: The city's designers hope for ribbons on their wreaths, garlands, "fans" and other seasonal decor, created within guidelines of historical plausibility and authenticity of materials.

    Expertly costumed historic interpreters mingle with tourists, ready to explain customs, traditions, the conjectures of archaeologists and documentation of historians.

    Many of the 500 buildings reconstructed on 301 acres, often on original foundations, are open with tours. Professionally trained and certified artisans, referred to here as "tradespeople," are at work, describing and demonstrating their industries' roles in the earliest years of the American adolescence.

    So rigorous is the standard of quality here that, as garden programs director Laura Viancour explains, the fruit you see on so many wreaths around the city is checked for freshness and replaced weekly. The set of pewter spoons George "Doc" Hassel and journeyman Suzanne Dye are making at the Geddy Foundry will be sold at the Prentis Store on Duke of Gloucester, which locals call "DoG Street."

    The research at Williamsburg over the decades has yielded more than 50 million fragments of items, a 500,000-piece trove of collected items and a network of museums under Chief Curator Ronald Hurst's direction that includes the Abby Aldrich Rockefeller Folk Art Museum, the Wallace Museum and cafe, and the DeWitt Wallace Decorative Arts Museum.


    The DeWitt Wallace has handily opened its "A Child's Eye View" exhibition of heirloom toys, huge doll houses and trains just in time for the season. And it stages a major display of four priceless original battle flags from the Revolution including one captured in 1779 when the British cavalry's Lt. Col. Banastre Tarleton in a surprise attack in 1779.

    With performances running many times a day at the Kimball Theatre, special entertainment on the city's several outdoor stages, Williamsburg Marketplace shopping in Merchants Square, the hotels and restaurants of the historic district, and those gentle, warming fires set up around the town -- great places to start conversations -- Colonial Williamsburg is open for holiday business, looking like a Christmas card come to life. E-mail to a friend E-mail to a friend

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