Williamsburg: The Best Christmas Town in America

With its Yuletide spirit, authentic traditions and unique festivities, Greater Williamsburg celebrates the holidays like no place else.

'Christmas Town at Busch Gardens
Cressets in Colonial Williamsburg
Yorktown Christmas Tree Lighting
Yankee Candle Holiday Park

Christmas is a time for sharing and giving and, of course, nostalgia. What better place to be transported to the warmth of Christmas than Williamsburg, where smoke billows from chimneys, flickering flames light cobblestone streets and the scent of cider and the sounds of carols waft into the winter night. Plus, the season is packed with special holiday festivities and events unmatched anywhere else.

Here are some of the things that make Greater Williamsburg the best holiday destination in the country.

Be Dazzled by a Stunning Display of Lights 

Thrill to the largest Christmas light display in North America at Busch Gardens Christmas Town, aglow with more than 8 million bulbs. Nowhere else can you travel the globe in just one place in the world’s most beautiful theme park. Explore traditions near and far — from Ireland and France to Germany and Italy. In "Gloria," one of the holiday shows, Ireland's Abbey Stone Theater comes alive with the story of the first Christmas. In "Deck the Halls," warm up inside Das Festhaus with a live musical tribute to Christmas traditions.

Gather ‘Round the Community Christmas Tree

Did you know that the tradition of a community Christmas tree started in Williamsburg?

So, of course, you can enjoy not just one, but two festive community tree lighting events.

The German custom of a decorated evergreen to mark the season began in Williamsburg by a homesick German teacher at the College of William & Mary in 1842, according to local lore. In 1915, the town gathered on the Palace Green to sing carols around a tree decorated with electric lights — their first community tree.

The lighting of the tree has been an annual event since then. This year, gather in Market Square on Dec. 21 for a reading of "The Night Before Christmas" and enjoy that special glow, inside and out.    

Meanwhile, Yorktown began a community tree in 1945. That tradition continues on Dec. 1 with a 7 p.m. performance by The Fifes and Drums of York Town at the Victory Monument, festive music at Riverwalk Landing, the procession of lights through the historic village, and the arrival of Santa and Mrs. Claus. 

Be Wowed by the Grand Illumination

It all started with a candle in the window. 

In 1934, colored lights were strung on 10 trees in Colonial Williamsburg's historic area, but the Colonial Williamsburg Foundation's president decided they were inadequate and he asked his researchers to find a historic practice that could be revived.

They came up empty. But the foundation's landscape architect recalled that his family began putting a single lighted candle in windows as far back as 1893.    

With the availability of electric candles, the practice gained in popularity throughout the community. Today, every neighborhood in the country has homes with candles in the window, a tradition traced to Williamsburg.   

In 1957, Colonial Williamsburg added boom to the candles, setting off fireworks for the first time. The Grand Illumination has now become a family tradition with fireworks fired from three locations.    

The first candles are lighted at 5 p.m. on Dec. 3 in the windows of shops and homes along Duke of Gloucester Street. Soon, 90 cressets of fatwood flicker to life along the cobblestone streets. That sets the stage for the 7 p.m. show of light and thunder, the simultaneous firing of pyrotechnics from the Capitol, the Magazine and the Governor’s Palace. 

Watch a Tree Grow in Williamsburg

Sure, there are dazzling Christmas trees around the country. But one inspired by the best American folk art? Only in Williamsburg.

 In 1957, an eight-foot tree in the lobby of the Abby Aldrich Rockefeller Folk Art Museum debuted, decorated with handmade ornaments made by staff and volunteers. That tradition continues today although it's grown — and so has the tree.

Since 2007, the tree has filled the Penny Court, the museum's two-story atrium. It's decorated with nearly 2,000 of the 3,000 ornaments staff and visitors have made over the years, uniquely inspired by the folk art collection. 

Two for One: Shop and Celebrate

If it's the holiday season all year round at Yankee Candle Village, imagine what December is like. Nothing compares. Sit with Santa who will look in his book and tell if you’ve been naughty or nice. Browse more than 40,000 square feet of interactive shopping and fun, wrapped in the warmth of the season. Stroll through the Holiday Park with more than 40,000 ornaments. Stop by Dec. 2 and 3 and make your own ornament with the Chrysler Museum Mobile Glass Studio. Where else can you do that but Greater Williamsburg?

Dancing Lights and Music

Lasers paired with music are a magical way to celebrate the holidays. The Virginia Living Museum’s Abbitt Planetarium features a holiday presentation of timeless classics and popular holiday songs with a dazzling light show sure to thrill the whole family. It runs multiple times from Nov. 22 to Dec. 31.

Experience Christmas the Colonial Way

Where else can you experience the history of the holidays in America like you can in Greater Williamsburg?

The colonists celebrated Christmas, but not the way we do. At Jamestown Settlement, compare and contrast English holiday customs with those celebrated during the difficult early years of America’s first permanent English colony. Be sure to indulge your naughty side with the Lord of Misrule, an English tradition. The "grand captain of all mischief” wears yellow and green scarves, ribbons, laces, rings, and jewels, and spreads his revelry throughout the settlement during the holidays.

Imagine a Shivering Revolutionary Christmas

At the new American Revolution Museum at Yorktown, start a new family tradition by listening to accounts of Christmas and winter in the Revolutionary War encampment there and explore the holiday preparations on a Revolution-era farm.  

Enjoy a Walk through Tradition

Starting Nov. 24, you can stroll through Colonial Williamsburg with an 18th-century resident as your guide to the Christmastide season. Expect them to share reflections on the holidays, the news of the day, and perhaps even a little gossip about who's been naughty and who's been nice.

Experience Christmas at Three Historic Plantations 

Celebrate the elegance of the season in grand style. Historic Homes in Charles City offers holiday tours of Edgewood, Shirley and Berkeley Plantations starting Dec. 2. Experience four centuries of history at these landmark locations. The tour begins at 2:30 and 3:30 p.m. at Shirley Plantation, and then, continues to Berkeley and ends at Edgewood. 

Step Back into Concerts at the Palace

Colonial Williamsburg's early music ensemble, the Governor's Musick, plays an elegant and touching evening of chamber music using period instruments by candlelight in the Governor's Place on Dec. 2, 9, 16, 23, 26, and 30. What could be more authentic than transporting yourself back in time for this elegant event?

Caroling at the Coffeehouse? Of course.

On Dec. 10, 14, 17 and 21 gather around the porch lit by burning cressets at Charlton’s Coffeehouse in Colonial Williamsburg to sing songs of the season. Sip coffee, tea, or velvety hot chocolate prepared in the 18th-century way.