Colonial tradition illuminates holiday season

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November 28, 2006

10:48 PM

This Sunday 30,000 tourists, townspeople and students are expected to descend upon Duke of Gloucester Street to celebrate the 71st annual Grand Illumination. The event, which marks the opening of the holiday season, will feature fireworks, music and holiday decorations. It will also usher in a month of holiday programming in the Historic District.

p. Music will begin at 4:45 p.m. on four different stages in Colonial Williamsburg. The stages will be located in front of the Playbooth Theatre on the Palace Green, in Market Square, in front of the Gaol and on the south side of the Capitol. Performances will include the College’s choir and the Botetourt Chamber Singers, as well as the Fife and Drum Corps and balladeers from the historic taverns.

p. At 6:15 p.m., residents of the historic homes will light candles in their windows and the fireworks will begin, launched simultaneously from the Governor’s Palace, the Magazine and the Capitol.

p. After the 20-minute show, musical entertainment by the Fife and Drum Corps will continue until 7:30 p.m. Hot cider and cookies will be sold on the streets.

p. Tim Sutphin, manager of historic area events for Colonial Williamsburg, is in charge of Grand Illumination. According to Sutphin, Williamsburg’s Grand Illumination has a long history.

p. In the 18th century, residents of the American colonies lit candles in their windows in honor of special events such as holidays, royal birthdays and military victories. Williamsburg kept the tradition and formalized it into a ceremony in 1935.

p. In the 1960s and ’70s, a ceremonial cannon fire and parade were added.

p. “The parade moved down Duke of Gloucester Street, stopping at each individual house and commanding it to light the Christmas candles in its windows. The Fife and Drum Corps led the parade with the militia, and the audience followed behind,” Sutphin said.

p. As tourism increased, the parade and cannon fire became impractical, and Grand Illumination evolved to its current format. The spirit of the parade is carried on in the town’s Christmas parade held at 9 a.m. on the day before Grand Illumination.

p. Sutphin called Grand Illumination “our holiday gift to the community. It’s unique and a great opportunity for students to have a good time — and it’s free.”

p. Michael Fox of Pyrotecnico in New Castle, Penn. is in charge of the historically accurate fireworks for the event. He explained that their main purpose is “to illuminate and complement the historical buildings.” Fox also explained that, “In keeping with the constraints of the 18th century, the fireworks are smaller than what we’re used to today and they’re also kept at a lower level.”

p. “Cakes” and “Roman candles” are two of the fireworks types used. Cakes consist of small tubes that quickly fire low aerial effects in succession. Roman candles shoot successions of individual fireworks from long paper tubes.

p. Smaller fireworks are easier to control and therefore safer to use around the historical buildings. They also allow crowds to get closer to the show. Keeping this in mind, Pyrotecnico designs set pieces and pictures in fire for the shows, including the Williamsburg crest, Christmas trees and wheels.

p. Because there are hundreds of fireworks in each cake and candle, the exact number of the hundreds of thousands of fireworks used in the 20-minute show is inestimable.

p. Computers will synchronize and electronically shoot off the fireworks. The shows are made identical for a purely practical reason: to evenly dispense the crowd. The only difference between them is that the Capitol’s fireworks will include a “Niagara Falls” pyrotechnic effect that looks like the famous waterfalls. This will be visible from all three sides of the Capitol building.

p. The shows are different each year because of changing availability and technology of the products used to build the fireworks.

p. Tiffany Bryant, a senior at the College, has attended Grand Illumination every year. “It’s really pretty and nice to be around people who aren’t studying,” Bryant said. “Also, it’s cool to watch fireworks in December.” Bryant said that the optimal place to stand is the Magazine, where all three shows can be seen simultaneously.

p. Setup for Grand Illumination is already underway. Speakers for the musical entertainment are put up three to four weeks in advance. A week before the event, residents of the colonial homes put up historically accurate holiday decorations that will remain until after Christmas. A crew of 20 rapidly sets up the fireworks around 8 a.m. Sunday and takes them down the same night. The fireworks at the Governor’s Palace are the last to be set up and the first to come down because the display blocks the doors to tourists.

p. Pyrotecnico says they will begin planning the displays and fireworks for next year immediately after Sunday’s show.

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