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Holiday traditions old and new in historic Virginia

A holiday table welcomes guests at Monticello, Thomas Jefferson's former home. Photo courtesy Thomas Jefferson’s Monticello

In 1787, George Washington was feeling the holiday spirit. Two years before he became president, he spent 18 shillings to rent a camel, which he promptly brought home to entertain his Christmas guests. Today, his Mount Vernon mansion honors the tradition with its own camel, Aladdin, who welcomes visitors to the Potomac River grounds every holiday season.

Across the state, historic homes and sites decorate with local greenery, host candlelight tours, offer workshops, and schedule special events and teas to give guests an old-fashioned holiday experience. A few continue the colonial tradition of “grand illuminations,” which typically included fireworks and the firing of guns to commemorate major events.  Most sites also have well-stocked gift shops, making them the perfect place to pick up holiday decorations or locally made gifts.

Here are some top places across the Commonwealth to celebrate a vintage holiday.

Colonial Williamsburg

A large Christmas tree covered with ornaments and surrounded with poinsettias

Colonial Williamsburg hosts 3 tree lightings as well as themed Christmas trees in its museums. Photo courtesy The Colonial Williamsburg Foundation

Christmas may be the ideal season to visit the reconstructed capital of the Virginia Colony, which hangs more than 300 handcrafted wreaths on scores of buildings.

The historic area hosts 3 tree lightings and features themed Christmas trees throughout its museums, including a 16-foot folk art tree decorated with handmade ornaments. The fun lasts into the evening, with the popular Grand Illumination on weekends in early-to-mid December. On Friday nights, crowds come out for a Yule log procession. 

Fireworks frame Colonial Williamsburg during the Grand Illumination

The Grand Illumination in Colonial Williamsburg wows on weekends in early-to-mid December. Photo courtesy The Colonial Williamsburg Foundation

Accompanied by fife and drums, a horse-drawn wagon carries the log to a bonfire where guests can make a wish and throw a sprig of greenery into the flames. Saturday evenings bring firework displays from 2 locations. Unlike traditional July 4 shows, these pyrotechnics are set off lower to the ground, which intensifies the effects.

The Merchants Square area offers holiday music, ice skating, and appearances from Santa Claus during the evening, while daytime programs include Christmas-themed presentations and shows. Adults, $47.

Hunter House Victorian Museum, Norfolk

This house/museum in Norfolk’s cobblestoned Historic Freemason District transports visitors to the late 19th century. From November 19 through December 16, guided and self-guided tours showcase the home decked with handmade garlands, Victorian tea sets, and a towering Christmas tree. On December 10 and 11, the house hosts a Victorian Christmas tea with sweets, savory snacks, and seasonal entertainment. Tours are free for the rest of 2022; teas are $35 for adult non-members.

Read more: Why you should celebrate the holidays in Richmond, Virginia

Berkeley Plantation, Charles City

This James River property dates to 1619 and claims to be the site of the first Thanksgiving that year, which makes it a fitting place to visit during the holidays. It was later the home of 2 presidents, William Henry Harrison and his grandson, Benjamin Harrison. The house, built in 1726, gets gussied up for the season with greenery from the gardens, and costumed guides share stories from 4 centuries of Christmases that have been celebrated there. Adults, $16.

Fredericksburg Holiday Candlelight Tour

Festively dressed hosts await guests during the Fredericksburg Holiday Candlelight Tour

Tour historic homes decked out for Christmas during Fredericksburg's Candlelight Tour. Photo by Rebecca Cunningham

George Washington’s hometown invites visitors to stroll its brick streets for the city’s 52nd annual candlelight tour. The ticketed event, held December 9 to 11, takes participants to historic homes decked out for Christmas by professional designers and decorators. In addition, guests can opt for a self-guided tour of the home exteriors. Adults, $35.

Read more: Visit the homes of our country’s Virginia-born presidents

Monticello, Charlottesville

Two women hanging a wreath on a window at Monticello

Wreath Workshop attendees at Monticello can create a beautiful door or window decoration that will last through the season. Photo courtesy Thomas Jefferson’s Monticello

Thomas Jefferson’s mansion celebrates the holidays by inviting visitors for rare after-dark tours. Monticello is decked out with greenery typical of the colonial era and set up as it would have been in Jefferson’s day to welcome holiday guests. Tours describe how everyone who lived on the mountaintop—both house residents and enslaved people—celebrated the holidays. Tours also include a rare visit to the third-story Dome Room, which will look familiar to anyone who has seen the “tails” side of a nickel. Adults, $85.

Visitors can also sign up for a 3-hour workshop to learn how to make traditional wreaths using natural greens, ornamental grasses, and other materials that have been harvested from Monticello’s gardens or from elsewhere in Virginia. Participants will take home a wreath. Monticello’s floral designer and curator of plants leads the sessions, which are in their 36th year. Tickets, $80.

Mount Vernon

Aladdin the camel

Aladdin the camel delights visitors at Mount Vernon during the holidays. Photo courtesy Mount Vernon Ladies’ Association

From holiday lights to fireworks over the Potomac, the first president’s home embraces December with a long list of special events.

During the Christmas Illuminations show (planned for December 16 and 17), visitors can listen to classic holiday music, shop for 18th-century crafts and wares, and enjoy shifting patterns of blue and lavender lighting projected with patriotic messages. At a Winter Encampment and historic area, they can tour a blacksmith shop, hear carolers, and see everyone’s favorite dromedary, Aladdin the camel. General Washington himself introduces the fireworks. Adult non-members, $60 (includes mansion tour).

Reenactors standing beside a family during a candlelight tour of Mount Vernon

Mount Vernon guests can experience a taste of 18th-century living in the Winter Encampment and historic area. Photo by Adam B. Auel

Mount Vernon offers candlelight tours of Washington’s home on select weekends in late November and early-to-mid December. These ticketed special events include complimentary ginger cookies and spiced cider. Adult non-member, $36.

During regular daytime hours from November 26 through December 31, the home offers chocolate-making demonstrations that show how the sweet was produced in Washington’s day. Holiday fifing and colonial crafts are also on display, and on weekends, a reenactor portraying Washington’s farm manager, James Anderson, gives 30-minute camel talks, documenting Washington’s fascination with exotic animals. Adult non-members, $26.

On December 3 and 4, Mount Vernon’s Greenhouse Manager and longtime floral designer Melanie Welles Creamer will lead 2 workshops: one to make an ornamental wreath ($125 for non-members) and one to make a decorative “kissing ball” ($65 for non-members).

Read more: 7 great places for holiday celebrations in West Virginia

Oatlands Historic House & Gardens, Leesburg

The grounds at Oatlands Historic House & Gardens

Enjoy tea, holiday shopping, carolers, and a visit from Santa at Oatlands Historic House & Gardens, which was built in the early 1800s. Photo courtesy Oatlands Historic House and Gardens

Beginning on November 20, this 1800s-era National Trust home welcomes holiday guests with tea in the mansion and the opportunity to shop for handmade gifts made by artisans who set up in the visitors center. In December, teas will continue every weekend, accompanied by guest appearances from carolers and occasionally Santa himself.

The mansion, which was built in the early 1800s, was once the largest plantation in Northern Virginia’s Loudoun County. In 1903, it was purchased by descendants of the prominent Washington philanthropist family, the Corcorans. Adults, $10.

Belle Grove Plantation, Middletown

An illuminated Christmas tree waits beyond the open doors at Belle Grove

Belle Grove in Middletown features a 12-foot decorated tree and candlelight tours. Photo courtesy Belle Grove Inc.

This manor house, once owned by President James Madison’s sister, offers candlelight tours accompanied by live music in the parlor on Fridays and Saturdays during December (except December 24 and 31). It also provides regular guided tours throughout the week. A highlight is seeing the 12-foot Christmas tree grown in the area and decorated by garden clubs from the surrounding northern Shenandoah Valley.

The National Historic Landmark structure, built in 1797 from limestone quarried on the property, is located on the Cedar Creek & Belle Grove National Historical Park, which preserves Civil War battlegrounds. Adults, $12.

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