At the plantations that hug the James River from Williamsburg to Richmond, they're gathering boxwood, magnolia and cedar branches at this time of year.
The greens will be fashioned into beautiful wreaths and garlands as part of the holiday decorations that have become an annual tradition for homeowners and the thousands of visitors who come through their doors or walk their grounds. Tables and doorways are decorated with fruits, and the aroma of spices fill the air.
Holidays are a magical time, and plantations like Shirley and Berkeley schedule special programs, tours and workshops to mark the season. From the Greater Peninsula it's an easy day trip up Route 5 to reach the elegant plantations that dot the James River in Charles City County. Closer to home you can also visit Bacon's Castle in Surry.
Here's a look at several places to visit during the holiday season.
465 Bacon's Castle Trail, Surry. 757-357-5976. preservationvirginia.org/visit/historic-properties/bacons-castle.
The nation's only surviving High Jacobean structure, Bacon's Castle was built in 1665 and is the oldest brick dwelling in the United States. Its 17th century English formal gardens that have been restored by the Garden Club of Virginia are the oldest in North America.
During December, Bacon's Castle will be open the weekend after Christmas. Hours are 10 a.m. to 5 p.m. Friday-Saturday and noon to 5 p.m. Sunday. The grounds will be decorated for the holidays, according to a spokesman for Preservation Virginia, which maintains the property.
Tickets are $8 general admission, $6 seniors, $5 students, free to children under age 6.
12602 Harrison Landing Road, Charles City. 888-466-6018. berkeleyplantation.com.
Tammy Radcliff, manager of the plantation, says all of the decorations come from the property.
"We hang boxwood wreaths throughout the house — on the doors, gates and windows — that are fashioned out of cuttings from our boxwood bushes," she said. "We take cedar from the cedar trees to make garland ropes for the doors and wreathes.
"The Christmas tree is cut on the property, and we collect mistletoe for the ball that's hung in the main hall," says Radcliff. "It's all fresh greenery from the gardens. It's not as glittery and illuminated as what we're used to seeing today, but it's beautiful."
Schedule of events:
•Dec. 6-Jan. 1 — Centuries of Christmas at Berkeley Plantation. The 1726 mansion will be decorated with fresh greenery from the gardens of boxwood, cedar and holly trees. Costumed guides will tell stories highlighting four centuries of Christmas at Berkeley. Tours from 9:30 a.m. to 4:40 p.m. daily. Tickets are $11 adults, $7.50 youth ages 13-16 and $6 children ages 6-12.
•Dec. 13 — Colonial Christmas at Berkeley Plantation. Learn how the Harrison family celebrated Christmas during the 18th century with colonial music, stories and decorations. Refreshments. 1 p.m. $15.75 adults, $12 kids ages 6 to 12. Reservations required.
Sherwood Forest Plantation
14501 John Tyler Memorial Highway, Charles City. 804-829-5377. Sherwoodforest.org.
Sherwood Forest was the home of the 10th U.S. President John Tyler from 1842 until his death in 1862. The plantation has been in the continuous residence of the Tyler family since the president purchased it in 1842.
The plantation house, the longest frame house in America, was expanded to its present length of over 300 feet in 1845 when Tyler added a 68-foot ballroom catering to the popular dance of his time, the Virginia Reel. The grounds are 25 acres of terraced gardens and lawn based on the landscape designs of Andrew Jackson Downing of New York and include original outbuildings or dependencies. It is considered one of the most complete plantation yards left in America, dating from about 1680.
The plantation grounds are open from 9 a.m. to 5 p.m. daily for self-guided tours, though no special holiday decorations are planned. $10 adults, free to children. Tours of the house are by reservation only. $35 adults, $14 children over age 6
501 Shirley Plantation Road, Charles City. 804-829-5121. Shirleyplantation.com.
Currently Charles and Lauren Carter, descendants of the original families that built the plantation, live in the main house. The family takes a very hands-on approach to holiday decorating, says Julian Charity, visitor services manager at the plantation.
"The current Mrs. Carter enjoys Christmas to no end," says Charity. "She and I and her mother decorate the entire house and some outbuildings. She uses boxwood, magnolias, evergreen pieces and cedar that are found around the farm to make a lot of handmade wreaths."
Schedule of events:
•Beginning Dec. 4 — Guided house tours feature holiday-decked rooms and family stories representing 11 generations of the Hill-Carter family's Christmas celebrations. The house is open for tours from 10 a.m. to 4 p.m. daily except Thanksgiving Day and Christmas Day. Tickets are $11 adults, $10 seniors and $7 military.
•Christmas Tours with Mrs. Carter — 11 a.m. and 2 p.m. Dec. 13. Join Lauren Carter for a tour of the first floor of the house. She will explain the stories behind her family's holiday decorations and traditions. Tickets $20 per person. Reservations recommended.
7000 Westover Road, Charles City. 804-829-2882. Westover-plantation.com.
Westover, built around 1730 by William Byrd II, the founder of Richmond, is known for its beautiful gardens and architectural details. The house, which is not open to the public, is considered one of the most outstanding examples of Georgian architecture in America. Westover is currently owned by Rob and Andrea Erda. She is the great-granddaughter of Richard Crane, who purchased the property in 1921.
The grounds and garden are open from 9 a.m. to 6 p.m. daily. Tours are self-guided and donations to help maintain the property are $5 adults, $3 military, $2 youth ages 7 to 16, and free to children ages 6 and under.
David Nicholson can be reached at 757-247-4794.
Plantations Progressive Tour
Three historic homes in Charles City — Edgewood, Shirley and Berkeley Plantations — will join forces for a Candlelight Christmas progressive tour on Dec. 6, 20 and 27.
The tour begins at 3:15 p.m. at Shirley Plantation, continues to Berkeley and ends at Edgewood. Shirley and Berkeley will feature traditional decorations and costumed guides. Edgewood will be decorated in the style of a Victorian celebration, with 18 Christmas trees illuminating this 19th century home.
Tickets are $42, and reservations are required. To make reservations or for additional information, call 804-829-2962.