The History of Grand Illumination

Image Courtesy of Colonial Williamsburg

Since 1934, Colonial Williamsburg has wowed visitors with Grand Illumination, an annual tradition celebrating the holiday season in the Historic Area. With fireworks, musical performances, and pine-scented cressets enlivening a winter evening, this event succeeds to bring good cheer to all those in attendance. This year’s celebration on December 2 will be no different. As the Grand Illumination schedule of events indicates, Colonial Williamsburg employees will certainly be busy catering to its many visitors.

But such Christmas festivities were uncommon in colonial Virginia. As Harold B. Gill, Jr. elaborates in his article in the Colonial Williamsburg Journal, celebrations on December 25 were rare, so atypical that even international visitors found their absences puzzling. While the diaries of Thomas Jefferson and other prominent early Americans suggest that balls and dinner parties did occur on Christmas day, these traditions were not widespread. Indeed, Anglican families often spent the holiday, the official end to Advent fasting, in a quiet manner.

So if today’s Grand Illumination cannot be dated to the colonial era, how did it come to be?

According to the “Christmas” section on the Colonial Williamsburg website, Grand Illumination developed from the 1934 White Lighting, when Arthur Shurcliff, a landscape architect, lit single candles in the windows of four buildings open to the public. Though this practice was not historically accurate, it was deemed quite popular amongst visitors, so much so that they requested to buy electric versions of these candles for their own homes. Fireworks joined the program in 1957 as a commemoration of the 350th anniversary of Jamestown’s founding. All of these characteristics have remained essential components to Grand Illumination ever since.

We highly encourage all students to join in the festivities. Not only is Grand Illumination a wonderful opportunity to spend time with friends, it is a great way to support our community. Numerous individuals spend long, tiring hours to prepare for this evening-long event. For more information, please see our schedule of events below and the Colonial Williamsburg website.

Schedule of Events

5:00 pm: Candles lit in Historic Area buildings

5:15 pm: Entertainment at the Palace Green, Public Goal, Market Square, and Capitol

6:40 pm: Fife and Drum Corps plays Grand Tattoo

7:00 pm: Fireworks

Categories: Arts & Culture, Student Blogs, Traditions & Events, Williamsburg

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