Illuminating The Season in Colonial Williamsburg

Holiday wreath made with dried flowers at Williamsburg
Holiday wreath made with dried flowers at Williamsburg

Ah… a Williamsburg Christmas!

Doesn’t that bring to mind fruit fans and apple cones and pineapple motifs? A hot toddy sitting by Christiana Campbell’s Tavern giant fireplace? And horses clopping down the Duke of Gloucester street adorned with boughs of holly and candlelit windows?

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Governors Palace at night

Visiting the historic area of Williamsburg during the Christmas season for the purpose of admiring the door decorations, you think that the colonial people started a great tradition and were extremely creative.

Okra pods, the pointy pods outlining the wreath were used a lot in the decorations
Okra pods, the pointy pods outlining the wreath, are used a lot in the decorations

Contemporary Tradition

But contrary to popular thought, the tradition of hanging fruits, pods, oyster shells, veggies, and other kinds of plant life on your front door started in the mid part of the twentieth century – not in colonial times. Anyone in the colonial period who would waste perfectly good fruit and place it outside to be eaten by deer or squirrels would be committed into the “Public Hospital for Persons of Insane and Disordered Minds”! But in the early Twentieth century, Christmas was growing in significance and there was a Colonial Revival going on.

A simple fan of Magnolia leaves and wheat
A simple fan of Magnolia leaves, cotton burrs, chili peppers, yarrow, and wheat

Decoration Birthplace-Au Naturel

Starting in 1936, the decorations were  simply a few plain wreaths and roping to decorate the Governor’s Palace and Raleigh’s Tavern. Mrs Louise Fisher, placed in charge of flowers and Christmas decorations, went to the library where she turned up examples of period examples from English and American sources that she could imitate- like Grinling Gibbons, master carver to George I in England. Gibbons carved festoons of fruit, flowers, and other bits of nature in borders that decorated Windsor Castle, Hampton Court Palace, and St. Paul’s Cathedral. By 1939, her “Della Robbia” look was attracting attention and the “Williamsburg Christmas” look was born. It became so popular that in 1969, the Christmas decorations tour began and became hugely popular. Instruction courses, books, article, and how-to workshops followed.

Bird nibbling on berries in a swag
Bird nibbling on berries in a swag

Every Christmas, the exhibition buildings, homes and shops of Colonial Williamsburg are decorated with wreaths and garlands of natural materials for the holiday season. The arrangements go up right after Thanksgiving and remain to January 6th and are hand-made by the employees of Williamsburg on houses in the Historic Area. The flower arranging staff of Colonial Williamsburg Foundation is responsible for the whimsical and imaginative work for all the buildings in the Historic Area that are open to the public.

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Hops, pine cones, and oranges
Decorating the millinery shop
Decorating the millinery shop
Wreath with drummer boy was made for the William Pitt shop which sells a lot of toys
Made for  the William Pitt shop which sells a lot of toys, this drummer boy wreath is unusual
Apples are used extensively in wreaths
Used extensively in wreaths, apples, berries, and boxwood, are a tradition

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Private residences in the Historic Area are decorated by the occupants.

You can buy your own authentic Williamsburg wreath in the Historic Area
You can buy your own authentic Williamsburg wreath in the Historic Area

Contests

There is a hotly contested competition for best and most creative arrangements. The rules are: Everything must be ALL natural, and only items that would have been in Virginia in the 1700’s can be part of the arrangement. That meant no ribbons, bows, fake fruit, Poinsettia, pepper berries, and eucalyptus.

Outside Chownings Tavern is a wreath constructed with oyster shells
Outside Chownings Tavern is a wreath constructed with scallop shells and drinking mugs
Oyster shells play the starring role in this wreath
Oyster shells play the starring role in this wreath, along with quince, pomegranates, artichokes, cinnamon, and sumac

Judged by categories, the arrangements are one of the following: professionally made, hand-made by an amateur, and made by Williamsburg employee in the floral department. Checked daily, the arrangements are refreshed for anything that might have wilted or been consumed by wildlife!

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Entrance to Governors Palace
Festive entrance to Governors Palace

You can purchase your own accessories for decorating your house
You can purchase your own accessories for decorating your house

The appeal of these decorations are that they are hand made of natural materials, things that you have cut or collected from your yard, woodland, or beach. Bucking the trend of plastic trees and artificial reindeer, the naturalness is what makes these designs endure. Having the decorations up for up to six weeks, means that you have to use durable dried materials and replenish them if they disintegrate. “Floral cages”, a container that holds wet floral foam to keep things fresh, are popular for this reason.

Fresh pears, strawflowers, and wheat
Fresh pears, straw flowers, and wheat
Osage oranges, dried okra, and cockscomb
Osage oranges, dried okra, dusty miller, and cockscomb

Pineapple Motif

No one knows for certain exactly how the pineapple became an essential element in the Christmas decorations of Colonial Williamsburg, but a look at the history of this common 21st century fruit reveals some clues. Because the exterior of the fruit resembled the pine cone, and the sweet fruit was similar to the texture and taste of an apple, the name changed from its original “anana” to pineapple. A sought-after delicacy in colonial America, the pineapple was considered a sign of the highest form of hospitality because of its rarity and sweet taste.

p1110975By the 1930s, the pineapple was already a well established design element in architecture, ceramics, and art. It only stands to reason, then, that beautiful fresh pineapples would become the centerpiece for the creative decorations for which Colonial Williamsburg is known today.

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Green lotus pods make this wreath stand out
Green lotus pods make this wreath stand out

To read more about the history and see more pictures of decorations over the years, see Christmas in Colonial America.

All pictures are courtesy of Amy Sparwasser.