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Historic accommodations in Williamsburg, VA.,
offer a taste of Christmas past

Colonial Williamsburg epitomizes living history, but visitors can get 21st-century resort treatment when taking part in the Colonial Houses Historic Lodging program. Located in the heart of the Historic Area, the program's 26 widely varied restored and reconstructed “houses” offer a unique combination of 18th century accommodations and surroundings with modern amenities, activities, and shopping. The mixture provides a great place to stay anytime of year, but it's especially enjoyable over the holidays.

Historic Housing

The 26 Colonial Houses range in size from large taverns, like Brick House Tavern, to tiny Lightfoot Tenement, which is tucked away in a garden. Smart Colonial Williamsburg visitors can choose a small house for an intimate retreat or a larger one with room enough for an extended family reunion. Multiple rooms can also be combined within a house to accommodate up to 32 people.

Each of the accommodations is furnished with period reproductions, plus several have huge canopy beds. Many have one or more working fireplaces, and a few have their own gardens or overlook Duke of Gloucester Street, Colonial Williamsburg‘s main thoroughfare. Old wood floors and narrow staircases are the norm, but modern touches include air-conditioning, bathrooms, cable television, coffee makers, and tasty room service from the Williamsburg Inn. In fact, house guests have full access to the facilities of the modern inn just as if they were staying there, instead of back in the 18th century.

An excellent brochure published by The Colonial Williamsburg Foundation outlines the individual history, varying layout and amenities of each of the houses. Prospective visitors should keep in mind that some of the options do share entrances. All the choices are within walking distance of everything the Historic Area has to offer, including Colonial-style meals at four dining taverns. (The houses do not offer cooking facilities, though guests can stay in several former kitchens.)

The history of each structure tells interesting tales. For instance, Peter Hay’s Kitchen served as the kitchen for Dr. Peter Hay, a prominent physician who rented a house and shop at the corner of Queen and Duke of Gloucester Streets. And Lightfoot Tenement is representative of the clustered outbuildings surrounding Colonial Virginia plantations.

The Orrell House is another favorite historic option. Though John Orrell bought the house in 1800 and lived in it for 20 years, he was not the first owner. Its prior history was contained in early James City records, which were destroyed during the Civil War. Nancy Orrell Eaton, a descendent of John Orrell, came to Williamsburg in late-1997 to assist with ceremonies that reestablished the Colonial Houses program.

Sprawling Market Square Tavern welcomed Thomas Jefferson as one of its first lodgers. He rented rooms there while studying under lawyer George Wythe. Patrick Henry also opened an account there the day after he was inaugurated as first governor of the Commonwealth of Virginia. Today, Market Square Tavern offers 11 rooms, one of which is wheelchair accessible. The first floor has six rooms, where there are three queen canopy beds, two double canopy beds, and a room with twin beds. The second floor has five rooms, two with double beds, one with a queen bed, and one with twin beds. Each room features private, full bath facilities. A great room on the first floor has a fireplace that’s original to the building--and it's very welcoming during the chilly holidays.

Another option, Market Square Kitchen, is located behind the main tavern. It’s wheelchair accessible on the first floor, where there’s a double canopy bed, fireplace, and roll-in shower and bath. The second floor features twin beds and a private bath.

Colonial Williamsburg for the Holidays

When staying in Colonial Williamsburg for the holidays, guests will be treated to a yuletide extravaganza from another time. Throughout the colonial capital, “citizens” prepare for and enjoy a season of spiritual celebration and festive gatherings with family and friends without the intrusion of modern commercialism.

The Grand Illumination signals the beginning of each holiday season and typically attracts more than 25,000 people. The tradition began back in 1935 with the first White Lighting of the Historic Area. Back then, a single candle was lit in each window of homes and shops throughout Colonial Williamsburg.

Today, more than 100 exhibition buildings, trade shops, private homes and other Historic Area buildings are lit with more than 1,200 electric or battery-operated candles from Thanksgiving through New Year's Day. The actual Grand Illumination, when all the lights generally come on at once, takes place on December 3rd this season. There’s also a fireworks show.

Williamsburg’s outdoor Christmas decorations are known worldwide for their use of natural materials that would have been available during the 18th century. These typically include pine and boxwood wreaths decorated with fresh pineapples, apples, oranges, pomegranates, nuts, pinecones, holly, and other materials. More than 2,500 white pine and Fraser fir wreaths, along with more than three miles of white pine roping and more than 75 cases of fruit, are used to put the finishing touches on doorways, windows, columns, and railings.

By day, guests learn about 18th century Christmas traditions, which can include decorating, and dining at the Governor’s Palace. They can even return later in the day for An Evening of Dance at the Palace, where they can enjoy authentic 18th century country dances, reels, and the minuet by candlelight.

Over at the Capitol, guests will enjoy revolutionary politics during the day followed by A Capitol Evening, replete with elegant dancing and lively fast-paced hilarity. In between the two Williamsburg landmarks, huge bonfires and hot cider warm the winter night and its guests, while iron baskets (called cressets) attached to iron poles provide illumination with blazing pitch pine.

A variety of seasonal walking tours, musical programs, and evening plays for guests of every age complement Colonial Williamsburg’s vast offerings during this special time of year. Such offerings include The Christmas Decorations Walking Tour, a guided look at Colonial Williamsburg’s picturesque buildings and streets decked in their holiday splendor; Christmastide at Home, which explores holiday celebrations spanning three centuries; Kate’s Christmas Box, where Kate discusses the customs and practices of slaves during the holidays; and The Night the Animals Spoke, in which an enslaved family and a free family tell two different versions of the same story.

If you Go

The Colonial Houses are very popular during the holidays, with many repeat visitors making reservations well in advance.

Prices per room in Colonial Houses generally range from $149 to $289 per night, with rates starting at $199 during the holidays. Some stand-alone houses with two bedrooms are also available, with rates for the house ranging from $339 to $389. A three-night minimum stay is typically required between December 21 and 28.

Colonial Williamsburg has several ticket options for the holiday guest, ranging from The Colonial Sampler to Governor’s Key-to-the-City Pass and many more. Passes depends on the number of days in Colonial Williamsburg and the interests of the visitor. Ages 6-17 get good discounts and children under 6 are admitted free.

Visitors should look at at advance purchases for the holiday programs they really want to see. In addition, guests of Colonial Williamsburg Hotels (including the Colonial Houses) are given priority dining reservations, a good idea on the busier nights.

For further information or to make reservations, contact your local AAA office, call (800) HISTORY, or visit

Lynn Seldon and his wife Cele stayed in the David Morton House during the holidays last winter.

Back in the 21st Century for the Holidays

Within easy driving distance of Colonial Williamsburg, there are many other ways to get in the holidays spirit:

100 Miles of Lights ( Millions of lights and hundreds of events will entertain visitors to cities in central and southeast Virginia.

Hampton ( Holiday celebrations include the Coliseum Central Parade, Hampton Holidays Lighted Boat Parade along the Hampton Waterfront, the Hampton Holly Days Parade, and A Scottish Christmas with fiddler Bonnie Rideout. Other festivities include Santa's Attic Craft & Gift Sale, an old-fashioned Yule Log Celebration at Hampton History Museum and the annual favorite, the Peninsula Glass Guild Show. Plus, two special 'Twas the Night Before Christmas performances at The American Theatre.

Newport News ( See leaping reindeer and multi-colored snowflakes and be dazzled by more than 650,000 lights at Celebration in Lights. Shop for unique holiday gifts at Artful Gifts for the Holidays and the Holiday Militaria Show. Be transported to the skies over Bethlehem 2,000 years ago when you experience Star of Wonder. Learn about Christmas in the nineteenth century at Endview, Lee Hall and The Newsome House Museum & Cultural Center.

Norfolk ( Experience the brilliance of the holiday season illuminated by 500,000 twinkling lights along a 2.5-mile drive in Garden of Lights, or the special events and programs of Holidays in the City, including the lighted skylines of downtown Norfolk and Portsmouth. Holiday productions of A Christmas Carol and The Nutcracker round out the festivities.

Portsmouth ( The spirit of the holidays will come alive with the Olde Towne Holiday Music Festival. From lighted boats along the waterfront to the quaint antique shops and art galleries seven blocks away, you'll find harpists, jazz trios, brass quartets, choirs, bagpipes and more will be easy to find. Numerous lighted displays that once made up Coleman Nursery's Winter Wonderland, which this year will be on display at the Courthouse Galleries Museum.

Virginia Beach ( Enjoy the famous Boardwalk lit from end to end with 500,000 lights for Holiday Lights at the Beach. Take in a holiday parade or a Holiday Winter Wildlife Boat Trip. Enjoy English holiday traditions at the Adam Thoroughgood House and the Francis Land House. Holiday performances of The Moscow Ballet's Great Russian Nutcracker and the annual Messiah-Sing-A-Long.

Yorktown (www.York The holiday season begins the first full weekend in December with a Christmas Tree Lighting, Lighted Boat Parade, and Christmas Homes Tour.

James River Plantations ( A month of special tours, workshops, progressive luncheons, dinners, wine tastings, and lodging packages offered at historic landmarks.