Williamsburg shines its brightest during Grand Illumination, when crowds brave the cold and come together to admire the simple joys of community alongside dazzling fireworks and Colonial ambience. The event returns to Colonial Williamsburg Sunday alongside a weekend’s worth of other attractions.
“It’s just a magical event here on Duke of Gloucester Street,” said Bill Schermerhorn, Colonial Williamsburg’s creative director. “Christmas itself is such a festive, wonderful time and I think Colonial Williamsburg captures the essence of the holiday. It transports you.”
Schermerhorn joined Colonial Williamsburg last November with 34 years experience helping to organize the Macy’s Thanksgiving Day Parade and two Emmy awards to his name. He hopes to harness that same ambition for the best Grand Illumination yet. Thomas Jefferson described Christmas as “the day of greatest mirth and jollity,” a standard for which Schermerhorn said he’s aiming with Sunday’s celebration.
The event starts an hour earlier this year, with a town crier making the announcement along the courthouse steps at 4 p.m. Schermerhorn said the decision marks an effort to encourage visitors to enjoy the wreaths and other decorations, as well as each other’s company, before the sunlight fades.
“I want people to explore Colonial Williamsburg during the Grand Illumination ceremony,” he said. “I want people to explore and interact with each other and celebrate the spirit of the holiday.”
An evolving tradition
This year features new musical offerings across multiple stages in addition to the return of the Fifes and Drums and a capella singers belting out traditional Christmas music. The College of William and Mary’s Appalachian Music Ensemble offers traditional Southern Appalachian tunes. The Jubilee Performers will perform traditional African-American songs atop an ox cart.
“It’s going to be rousing and festive and joyful,” Schermerhorn said.
With the Palace Green serving as a makeshift dance floor, big band performers Truetone Honeys and 504 Supreme will celebrate the music of the ’30s and ’40s in a nod to Colonial Williamsburg’s restoration period, something emphasized heavily throughout this year’s Grand Illumination.
“That’s an interesting story to tell around here,” said Robert Currie, Colonial Williamsburg’s director of entertainment.
A new opening ceremony on the Raleigh Tavern porch tells the story of the Grand Illumination’s origins more than 80 years ago as the White Lighting, a humble beginning of candlelit windows long before the introduction of fireworks and crowds of 40,000 people exploded onto the scene.
“These traditions, they build and they change and they grow, and so I hope to add to that,” Schermerhorn said.
Following the fireworks, “A Grand Medley of Entertainments” marks Colonial Williamsburg’s first historical program inside the Kimball Theatre since William and Mary leased the property in August. The performance is a variety show with an 18th-century style.
But the evening still culminates in a firework finale, with three separate demonstrations launching from the Capitol, the Magazine and the Governor’s Palace.
“It’s incredibly unique to this place,” Currie said. “It’s a lot of fun to get people together this time of year in Colonial Williamsburg. It’s kind of magical.”
There’s an array of entertainment options throughout the weekend.
58th Annual Christmas Homes Tour: The Green Spring Garden Club offers a tour featuring six homes decorated with seasonal floral arrangements throughout Colonial Williamsburg and the Walnut Hills neighborhood. 9:30 a.m.-5:30 p.m. Saturday. Tickets are $35 or $10 for a single house, available at the Williamsburg Lodge and Colonial Williamsburg Visitor Center. For more information, visit greenspringgardenclub.org.
Annual Christmas Parade: Floats, marching bands, Santa and more accompany this year’s “Winter Wonderland” theme. 8 a.m. Saturday along Duke of Gloucester Street and Richmond Road, beginning at the intersection of Richmond Road and Brooks Street. Free.
Holiday Pops: A Grand Illumination weekend staple, the Williamsburg Symphony Orchestra concert features holiday hits like Mariah Carey’s “All I Want for Christmas is You” and “A Mad Russian’s Christmas” by the Trans-Siberian Orchestra alongside more traditional pieces like “Jingle Bells Forever” and “Rejoice Greatly.” The concert runs 1 p.m. and 3 p.m. Saturday and Sunday at the Kimball Theatre. Tickets are $30, tickets available at williamsburgsymphony.org.
A Raleigh Christmas Party: Colonial Williamsburg’s 18th-century party combines live performances, dancing and tasty treats. Starts 7 p.m. Friday inside the Raleigh Tavern; repeats throughout December. $12.50.
Tis the Season Tour: Stepping away from the Colonial era, this Colonial Williamsburg tour explores the Christmas traditions of 19th- and 20th-century Williamsburg through three vignettes. Starts 7 p.m. Saturday at the Lumber House Ticket Office with tours every 15 minutes through 9 p.m.; repeats throughout December. $16 for adults, $8 for children 6-12 and free for those younger than 6.
For more information on Grand Illumination and other holiday events, visit colonialwilliamsburg.com/holidays.
Birkenmeyer can be reached by phone at 757-790-3029.