Town Crier heralds Colonial Williamsburg's Grand Illumination

Decked out in traditional 18th-century attire that included knee breeches, a bright red cape and large black tricorn hat and carrying a sizeable lantern in one hand, Ray Townsend began his walk up Duke of Gloucester Street.

It was Colonial Williamsburg’s Grand Illumination in 1971.

“Mr. Palmer, please light your candles!” Townsend cried out. Suddenly a white light appeared in each of the windows of John Palmer’s large two-story brick house just a few yards east of the colonial capitol building. Palmer was a colonial lawyer and bursar of the College of William and Mary.

Within seconds Townsend cried out again.

“Mr. Burnett, light your candles!” John Burnett’s ordinary was a tavern, where gambling and drinking were most popular and meals also were served in the mid-18th century. It was across and up the street a bit, from Mr. Palmer’s house.

Thus began Townsend’s progress up the street. At each house, business or public building he would call out the owner’s or proprietor’s name and ask them to put candles in their windows.

“Mr. Wetherburn, please light your candles! ... Mrs. Hunter, please light your candles! … Mr. Geddy, please light your candles!”

In an interview 47 years ago, Townsend explained, “Normally I just swing my lantern toward the house or store and call out. Someone inside will turn on the candles in the windows.”

Tradition called for the entire street to be dark until the night watch passed and shouted out.

The cry of the night watch echoed through the city as Colonial Williamsburg opened its annual fortnight of holiday festivities beginning with the Grand Illumination of the city and its accompanying parade. The fife and drum corps led the procession, followed by craftsmen and other costumed townspeople. Then came the night watch, followed by visitors and area residents.

On one particular Grand Illumination parade when Townsend passed his own colonial house in the historic area, he shouted, “Laura Lee, light your candles!” and his young daughter quickly lit the lights in her windows.

“How special is that?” she wrote many years later. “My mission complete, my purpose accomplished, I could join the melee and follow [the crowd down the street] for some hot cider.”

Ray Townsend began working at Colonial Williamsburg as a bootmaker and retired as associate director of the Colonial Williamsburg research department, but without a doubt his favorite duty was leading the Grand Illumination parade.

In the early days the Grand Illumination parade was small, attracting just a few hundred people, but in 1971 the parade was attended by nearly 10,000. Colonial Williamsburg officials then became worried that someone would be injured, especially young children, and the parade was discontinued, but the Grand Illumination went on.

Unfortunately, the 1972 Grand Illumination was rained out. In 1973, without the parade, the beginning of the yuletide celebration was staged in front of the Governor’s Palace with the illumination of just one building. This was the year of energy crisis.

Then in 1974, lights again were put into nearly 4,000 windows of the historic area, and the Grand Illumination was staged at numerous locations along Duke of Gloucester Street. At that time the Christmas celebration lasted only a fortnight — one week before Christmas Day and one week afterward.

By 1990 the Colonial Williamsburg holiday season had become nearly a monthlong festival, and the Grand Illumination was moved to the first Sunday in December to kick off the expanded celebration. While still having its “white lighting” with electric candles in the windows throughout the historic area, the Grand Illumination program itself was greatly expanded.

Elaborate fireworks and ground displays were staged at the Governor’s Palace, the Powder Magazine and the colonial Capitol Building.

Now, years later, the Grand Illumination has been refined and still is held at the same location.

The crowds have continued to increase, and as many as 25,000 people can be expected at the annual event, to be held Dec. 2.

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