The history of Williamsburg's beloved -- but not so Colonial -- holiday decorations
The pineapple-studded wreaths, oyster-shell-trimmed swags and apple fans are some of the highlights of the annual holiday tours at 18th-century Colonial Williamsburg. They're also the icons of what's become known as the classic Williamsburg look.
But when tour guides drop the bomb that none of these decorations, nor the single candles lit in the windows at dusk, would have been there in the 1700s, visitors sometimes gasp.
"It's a surprise to many, for sure," says Jim Jolly, one of the interpreters who leads the seasonal walks through the streets that begin Thanksgiving week and end Jan. 1. Williamsburg, the restored 18th-century capital of Virginia, has a festive air, with the scent of wood-burning fires and the sound of a fife-and-drum corps.
"We do a good job of getting people to feel like they're in the 18th century, between the folks in costume, the carriages riding by and the old shops," Jolly adds. "So when folks see the decorations, they can easily think they were done that way in the 18th century."
Very little documentation exists that the colonists who settled in Virginia did any kind of Christmas decorating inside or outside their homes -- no wreaths of dried okra and lemons, no door fans of pomegranates and lady apples.
In the 1920s, philanthropist John Rockefeller Jr. and his wife, Abby Aldrich Rockefeller, joined with the Rev. William Goodwin, pastor of Bruton Parish Church in Williamsburg, to begin restoring the town to its Colonial appearance. In the 1930s, tourists started coming to see the progress being made in what was then just a handful of restored buildings. Around the holidays, visitors expected to find a little festive holiday spirit on the dark streets.
"In 1934, someone in the town put up a couple of Christmas trees around the historic area and covered them in colored lights, which did not go over well," says Carl Childs, director of the John D. Rockefeller Jr. Library and director of archives and records at Colonial Williamsburg. Officials involved with the restoration preferred to keep the look authentic and asked their researchers to look at what was done in the 1700s. They found that Christmas at that time was a religious celebration, not a decorating frenzy as it is today.
"The holidays in 18th-century Williamsburg were more low-key than we celebrate them today," says Joseph Beatty, Colonial Williamsburg's director of research and interpretive education. "People would go to church and have big meals and gather with families and friends. As far as decorations go, we are pretty confident that maybe a few people would put up a bit of greenery and hang mistletoe inside, as was English custom, but that was it."
Colonial Williamsburg officials realized there needed to be a compromise between authenticity and modern expectations. First, they borrowed a practice of lighting single candles in the windows from a tradition already popular in some other Colonial cities. This also reflected the British custom of lighting candles in honor of the king's birthday. Back in the 1930s, the real lighted candles were placed in dishes of water in Williamsburg historic houses, but fear of fire meant round-the-clock surveillance. Soon, they switched to electric candles.
Outdoors, they decided to display all-natural decorations using Virginia ingredients that would be familiar to a colonist living in the 1700s. They were inspired by English traditions depicted in 18th-century paintings and prints that show greenery tucked in vases or window frames and also the Colonial-style revival in American decorative arts that was in vogue in the 1930s.
The decorations have evolved over time, and eventually fruit and greenery became the hallmark of the Williamsburg look. There are classes, books and YouTube videos on how to achieve it. It has been copied in countless traditional East Coast homes, especially in historic Washington, D.C.-area neighborhoods such as Georgetown and Old Town Alexandria, and featured in books and magazines.
Planning the decorations is a year-round process, says Laura Viancour, director of landscaping, who has worked there since 1982. She supervises the design of hundreds of wreaths and swags, ordering materials, plus harvesting locally grown greens including Eastern red cedar, poet's laurel, hemlock and magnolia, as well as berries. She and her staff, a dozen designers and eight carpenters, start at the end of September making dried arrangements; the first fresh ones are made the week before the installations begin, which is the Monday before Thanksgiving.
The staff, with the help of volunteers, decorates exteriors of more than 100 sites, including exhibition buildings, trade shops, Colonial houses and taverns, for the six-week holiday period. Many of the 24 historical trades sites create their own door decorations representing the shops, such as the wigmaker whose wreaths this year were dotted with tiny wigs and clay curlers, and the bindery, which hung replicas of 18th-century Virginia Gazettes rolled up into cones and waterproofed with paraffin and beeswax.
About 70 buildings are decorated by the residents who rent them, mostly Colonial Williamsburg employees, who promise to deck them for the holidays in a natural way using a list of approved materials. (No Santas or wire ribbons, please.) Some get very creative: In 2015, one couple designed a window wreath for their home in the historic area to celebrate the premiere of "Star Wars Episode VII: The Force Awakens." They had a tinsmith make two 18th-century-inspired lightsaber handles and fitted them with green and red taper candles, keeping within the rules.
Viancour says the decorations with fruits must be changed out every other week to keep them looking crisp; they are also checked daily, and any repairs are made as needed. The popular apple fan, made using nails on a piece of plywood, is a favorite. "As soon as you impale that apple on the nail, decay begins," Viancour says. Warm days, she says, hasten the rotting.
This year, the supply list included 2,552 wreaths, 4,450 yards of pine roping and 79 cases of fruit, including red and green apples, lemons, oranges and pomegranates. One particularly intricate 36-inch della Robbia-style wreath at the Roscow Cole House has Osage oranges, pomegranates, lady apples and cotton bolls.
"Forty degrees is the ideal temperature for the decorations," Viancour says. "It's not good if it's too warm, and if it freezes at night and thaws out during the day, that's not good, either."
What would the people of the 18th century make of these decorations? "They would not believe that we would be putting perfectly good food outside," Beatty says. "They would be amazed that we were sticking fruit on the door for squirrels to eat."
-- Colonial Williamsburg, a nonprofit educational institution, is open daily. Admission ticket ($40.99 for a one-day adult ticket) is required to enter buildings and museums. The seasonal daily walking tours of holiday decorations may be purchased for $15, without buying a daily ticket. The streets of the restored area of Williamsburg are public streets, and you can walk there, although no cars are permitted during the day.