It’s Beginning to Look a Lot like Christmas in Colonial Williamsburg

By Bob Ruegsegger

Colonial Revival Christmas decorations have begun appearing in the Historic Area on Duke of Gloucester Street, and the sky above Virginia’s Colonial capital has been ablaze with the vibrant glow of fireworks during the Grand Illumination. Area visitors and residents are purchasing fruited della Robbia-style wreaths and swags by the dozens at the Garden Shop across from Bruton Parish Church.

You don’t have to be a psychic to figure out that Christmas is approaching in Colonial Williamsburg, nor do you have to be a floral designer to appreciate the tasteful natural holiday arrangements that deck the doors and windows throughout this superbly restored 18th century town.

From the Wren Building on the William & Mary Campus to the Capitol at the other end of town, almost every public building and residence in the Historic Area seems to feature some elegant decorative Christmas wreath or other traditional holiday arrangement.

For nearly 75 years, the Colonial Williamsburg Foundation has been setting the standard for Christmas Colonial Revival ornamentation. No historic site has done it longer, better, or more conscientiously. Historic Area guests have come to expect the special elegance in Christmas decorations that CW has been invariably able to deliver.

CW’s director of Landscape Services Robert Scott oversees the operation that fabricates Williamsburg-style decorations (in addition to his other duties) at the Quarterpath Nursery during the holiday season. Decorative arrangements much like those that adorn the homes and buildings in the Historic Area are handmade by staff members and volunteers at the nursery for resale to visitors at the 18th century garden center near the Palace Green.

“Colonial Williamsburg has a wonderful reputation. It’s an honor to be associated with Colonial Williamsburg,” observed Scott. “There aren’t many places that do it [decorating] like we do. There are few places to compare us to,” he noted. “Standards have been set down through the years, and we cling to them for dear life because we know that what has been done in the past is acceptable and has really become part of Christmas in Colonial Williamsburg.”

Scott Hemler, senior gardener, assists the dozen or so volunteers who construct the decorations that are eventually sold at CW’s Garden Shop. “We use all natural ingredients: fruits, dried flowers, and berries. There’s nothing artificial or glitzy about it at all,” noted Hemler. “We try to stay close to the materials that they would’ve used in the 18th century. No modern lights and glitter and things like that are used,” he stressed. Pineapples used on the wreaths and other decorative creations tend to make quite an impression on CW guests. “The pineapple in the 18th century was the symbol of hospitality; it’s really neat to use them on wreaths, on swags, and in centerpieces to give the arrangements a different look and touch,” said Hemler. “They’re very popular with our guests. Our visitors who come really love the pineapples because they’re one of the unique things in our Williamsburg style,” he observed.

Erin Robbins examines this pineapple bedecked wreath at the King’s Arms Tavern.Larger In the 18th century, the pineapple was a very expensive fruit commodity. Grown in the British colonies in the Caribbean, they were shipped to Virginia by the gentry and by others who were wealthy enough to afford the luxurious fruit. Pineapples were placed prominently in centerpieces on dining room tables as symbols of hospitality and signs of welcome to guests.

In the 18th century, pineapples would have served to decorate inside the residences; today, they welcome Historic Area visitors on wreaths and garlands that adorn the exteriors of the restored Colonial era homes. Fresh fruit—especially pineapples, lemons, and oranges—was expensive in Colonial times. Tacking pineapples or lemons to the front door as part of holiday decorations would have been considered patently eccentric—as well as extremely wasteful. Even Williamsburg’s notoriously eccentric Mad Lucy Ludwell wasn’t crazy enough to nail a fresh pineapple to the front door of the Ludwell-Paradise House on Duke of Gloucester Street.

“Decorating in the 18th century—not a whole lot was done—would have been evergreen and holly sprigs in windowpanes and perhaps vases of holly; mistletoe was a real popular thing that they used to hang for obvious reasons,” he said. “Christmas in those days was primarily a religious holiday as well as a time for partying,” remarked Hemler. “For the gentry, it was also the time for celebrations, fox hunting and balls. There was lots of wine and rum and beer and lots of dancing,” added Hemler.

When the holiday season rolls around Hunter Curry, landscape foreman with the Colonial Williamsburg Foundation becomes a floral designer. Curry joins forces with the landscaping crew and a team of carpenters from CW’s operations division to decorate the exhibition buildings in the restored Colonial capital.

Private residences in the Historic Area are decorated by their occupants. The Williamsburg Inn and other hotel properties are decorated by the floral staff at the Williamsburg Inn.

When Christmas season rolls around landscape foreman Hunter Curry becomes a floral designer. Curry fastens a red ribbon on an evergreen wreath outside of the Milliners Shop.Larger “Decorating [in the current style] began in the 30’s and 40’s when the public began coming to Williamsburg to see the restoration,” noted Curry. “It began in just a few places, a few of the main buildings like the Palace, Capitol, and the Peyton Randolph House that were open to visitors,” she said. “Eventually, they decided to expand it to include the homes of people who lived in the Historic Area.”

While it takes Curry and crew about a week to make and hang the ornamentation in the Historic Area, the holiday labor doesn’t exactly stop there. The natural decorations must be scrupulously maintained to retain the freshness in appearance that visitors have come to expect. CW’s reputation depends upon diligent maintenance—decorative quality control.

“Every morning during the Christmas season each individual decoration is inspected,” explained Curry. “If they see a lemon turning black, something missing, or something that has been chewed on by a squirrel, they replace it,” she said. “That’s every single day—including weekends and holidays.”

This swag outside the Shoemaker’s Shop reflects the craftsman’s art as well as the Christmas season.Larger After a fortnight—two weeks—the fruit and the greens in the decorative treatments are replaced with fresh natural material. Hunter Curry has fifteen years of experience with Christmas decorations at Colonial Williamsburg and twenty-two years service with the CWF.

“It’s quality control with the fruit and the greens. It’s hard to go wrong if you keep those looking fresh,” she explained. “People are usually impressed just to see all the fresh materials hung up and the different designs,” said CW’s landscape foreman.

Pomegranates, a sign of opulence and wealth, adorn the Governor’s Palace. Pineapples, symbols of hospitality, are invariably featured in the arrangements at the Robert Carter House.

Pineapples and pine cones highlight this evergreen wreath at the Robert Carter House on the Palace Green. Carter’s home was adjacent to the Governor’s Palace. The pineapples reflect Carter’s wealth.Larger The truth of the matter is that 18th century citizens would never have wasted any edible material—especially pomegranates and pineapples—for decorating. They would have certainly eaten them with their Christmas meal. Pyramids of fruit, candies, and cakes graced the tables of the gentry. All of it was edible.

“People are just so appreciative of what’s put up. We get lots of compliments,” commented Curry, the landscape foreman turned floral designer. “We do get more recognition at this time of year than at other times of the year,” she smiled.

Duke of Gloucester Street is literally paved with visitors who photograph and carefully scrutinize the Colonial Revival decorations that have helped to make a Christmas visit to Williamsburg a memorable experience.

Connie Phillips of Little Rock, Arkansas, was engrossed in examining and photographing the elaborate decorations at the Robert Carter House, adjacent to the Governor’s Palace. “They’re so natural. I love the variation in color,” said Phillips. “I just think they’re lovely, I do. I would like to try to replicate something for my home. I’m taking pictures to see if perhaps I can do that when I get home,” she added.

“They’re beautiful. It’s good to see the natural pieces used; they’re not tacky or fake,” said Ginger White, a visitors from Greensboro, North Carolina. “It takes you back to when you were younger and reminds you of what your grandmother did around the house,” White smiled nostalgically.

If you go

Colonial Williamsburg official site:
1.800.History

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