Visiting Colonial Williamsburg for a free cup of hot cider, a student from the College of William and Mary watches as the Historic Area transforms into a snowless version of the North Pole. Wreaths, bows, holly adorn white-washed abodes, and tourists anticipating the upcoming Grand Illumination festival step in and out of the Mary Stith House, where a group of fiddlers plays period Christmas carols. A group of elderly visitors follows a tour guide explaining the holiday decorations, and children gather outside the Raleigh Tavern in order to see the Christmas celebration inside. Although the stress of finals is mounting, this student chuckles, knowing the holiday season has finally come to the City of Williamsburg.
“Williamsburg’s holiday traditions provide an opportunity for students to get together as a community and have a small break from all the stresses of exams,” Kate Collins’ 13 said. “Which is really valuable when we’re away from family during the holiday season.”
Collins, an international relations and psychology double major from California, has looked forward to this year’s festivities ever since caroling with friends last December. As a former resident of Brown Hall, she has witnessed much of the excitement around the Historic Area and Merchants Square.
“As a tourist destination, the holidays in Williamsburg are inevitably over the top, but it’s fitting for this time of year,” Collins said. “The holiday season is a time when it’s okay to be overly fuzzy and sentimental.”
But how does Williamsburg compare to the festivities back in her hometown?
“Every year, my hometown throws a tiny little Christmas parade down our main street,” Collins said. “It’s a cute display … but we don’t have anything like Grand Illumination.”
Indeed, Grand Illumination marks the official beginning of the winter season in Colonial Williamsburg, drawing tourists, Williamsburg residents and William and Mary students alike. Scheduled for this upcoming Sunday, Dec. 5, the event boasts three synchronized fireworks displays, music from the Fife and Drum Corps, costumed-interpreter performances and caroling along the torch-lit sidewalks.
For Izzy Castorena’14, Grand Illumination is among the events he wishes to experience during his undergraduate education.
“Being a freshman and the first of my family to come to the College, I have never attended any event in Williamsburg or at William and Mary,” he said. “I am really excited for the Grand Illumination and Yule Log ceremonies, though, because I have heard so much from older friends who are here or alumni friends.”
As Castorena mentions, Grand Illumination is only one of the many events that take place on campus or in the surrounding James City County area. William and Mary’s Yule Log ceremony, a tradition dating back to 1934, brings holiday cheer to the College’s hardworking student body.
“I think the fondest memory that I have of Williamsburg in the Christmas season is associated with the Yule Log ceremony,” Kathryn Gosciewski, ’12, an international student from Italy, said. “It was my freshman year, and my first year in America, and at the last minute a group of us international and exchange students decided to walk to the Wren Building and see what this was all about. We enjoyed listening to President [Taylor] Reveley’s unique reading of ‘How The Grinch Stole Christmas’ but also how representatives of major religions explained how it was a time of celebration.”
She and her friends were also photographed with Reveley dressed as Santa Claus — a moment she deemed “the cherry on top.”
Anik Cepeda ’13 agreed.
“There’s nothing quite like listening to President Reveley’s riveting rendition of ‘How the Grinch Stole Christmas’ while huddled among close friends,” Cepeda said.
And yet, these aspects of the Yule Log ceremony arrived late in the tradition’s history. According to Earl Gregg Swem’s Special Collections Research Center, the ceremony first resembled a spectacle out of feudal England. Freshmen, portraying serfs, would bring the Yule Log into the Wren Building’s Great Hall, where the president of the College, or the “Lord of the Manor,” would preside over the student body. Students and faculty would then enjoy a wild boar’s head feast in the Campus Center’s Trinkle Hall.
But to Emily Gilfillan, ’13, this uniqueness, both in its “feudal” past and “holly-throwing” present, is what makes the Yule Log ceremony her favorite holiday event.
“Yule Log helps me realize that I go to such an awesome school,” she said.
Many students are also fortunate to experience the holiday season at venues throughout the region. Among the most popular in the area include the Community Christmas Parade (Dec. 4), Christmas Town at Busch Gardens (Nov. 26 – Dec. 31), the Holiday Farmers Markets on Merchants Square (Nov. 20 – Dec. 11), and It’s a Wonderful Life at Christmas Players, a stage performance of the classic Christmas film (Nov. 11 – Dec. 11).
Gosciewski hopes to attend this Saturday’s Christmas Market on Main Street and Lighted Boat Parade in Yorktown.
“I love living in Williamsburg during the holiday season,” she said. “It embodies the typical small American town with its romantic settings. If only it would snow a bit more…”