Ever consider riding a roller coaster in the company of penguins to celebrate the holidays? How about enjoying a Christmas meal in a colonial tavern, or drinking hot cider on the beach as festively decorated boats sail past you and your crew? Here’s the lowdown on how to spice up your next day trip by heading due east for family fun.
Colonial Williamsburg kicks off its holiday celebrations the first Sunday in December with the famous Grand Illumination, an event that draws a crowd of old and young alike from around the state and nation. This year’s activities take place December 5, and feature caroling and street performers including musicians, dancing puppets, a bell choir, and the fife and drum corps, culminating with the lighting of the candles and cressets at colonial buildings and a spectacular fireworks display at three locations within the historic area. Throughout the day, you and your family can enjoy cookies and other treats, and King’s Arms, Christiana Campbell’s and Shields Tavern will offer special dining options that include traditional tavern fare and entertainment.
If you and your family would prefer to experience the colonial holiday atmosphere, but can’t make Grand Illumination, Colonial Williamsburg also hosts Kid’s Holiday Weekends the other weekends of the month including December 26, but not Christmas Day. Highlights of these special weekends are eighteenth century music and dance, holiday dress-up, storytelling and puppet shows, celebrations of various religious traditions, leisure activities such as Loo, a popular card game, an introduction to British holiday culture, and other educational activities. These events are included with the price of admission to Colonial Williamsburg. You can enhance the experience with A Kid’s Holiday Memories Tour, a fine way to fully explore the history of a colonial Christmas while you visit with a character interpreter, make holiday decorations, and play various colonial games with a trained costumed guide.
Another popular event is the treelighting ceremony on Christmas Eve. The festivities center around the first Christmas tree in Williamsburg, replete with hot chocolate, caroling and a reading of The Night Before Christmas.
Just down the road from Colonial Williamsburg, you and your family can look at holiday traditions through a European lens while exploring Busch Gardens Christmas Town.
In its second year, Christmas Town has expanded with the addition of an Italian Christmas in the theme park’s grottos, featuring a golden color scheme, holiday food, and graceful angels as far as the eye can see. In Germany, shoppers can browse Mistletoe Marketplace, an outdoor market with handmade gifts from local artisans, sample a Christmas feast at Das Festhaus, or engage in a live musical Light show with Busch Gardens iconic 50-foot Christmas tree. Over in France, explore the country’s Polar Pathway, an ice-themed world of dazzling lights and snow, and a close encounter with live penguins.
Next, hop the pond to Ireland, where families can also participate in Santa’s Fireside Feast at Castle O’Sullivan, a dining event with a buffet prepared by elves. Another must-see during your visit to Christmas Town is Santa’s North Pole workshop, where elf attendants lead children to the Jolly Old Elf himself. Throughout the park, you and your family can enjoy holiday refreshments like peppermint hot chocolate, authentic wassail, and gingerbread cookies. Then hop on rides (weather-permitting), or take in specially prepared seasonal shows, like Deck The Halls, O Tannenbaum, Rejoice, and the popular A Sesame Street Christmas, where Abby Cadabby learns about giving and sharing with family and friends during the holiday season. Special overnight packages with accommodations and admissions to Christmas Town and Colonial Williamsburg are available.
Jamestown Settlement & Yorktown Victory Center
Both Jamestown Settlement and Yorktown Victory Center also provide the opportunity for families to step back in time and experience what the holiday season was like during the colonial era. Jamestown Settlement’s program, A Colonial Christmas, offers films and tours three times daily for visitors to learn about the English colonists’ first Christmas. Another fun tidbit? The English tradition of the Lord of Misrule, also known as the Grand Captain of All Mischief, who meandered through town with riddles and revelry during the season. Other highlights include demonstrations of holiday cooking and musical entertainment from the seventeenth century. Over at Yorktown Victory Center, experience living history as interpreters share Christmas stories from the American Revolution. Holiday decorations, music and food are also part of the celebration.
Like Williamsburg, Yorktown’s festivities begin the first weekend in December with a Christmas tree lighting ceremony on the third, and the popular lighted boat parade the next day. During the parade along the York River, you and your family can sip hot cider by a bonfire on the beach as you watch boats adorned with holiday lights Compete for best-in-show. The weekend concludes with its cookies-with-Santa event especially for the kids. Another Yorktown holiday tradition occurs a week later on December 11, when Santa and Mrs. Claus lead the Polar Express in the Toyland Parade along Riverwalk Landing.
Breakfast with Santa at the Historic Freight Shed, but do get tickets in advance. You and your family may also wish to browse holiday markets, open both weekends, for original gifts like arts and crafts, and handmade soaps and candles. Shopping or not, it’s just as entertaining to watch demonstrations, take in the holiday décor, listen to music, and sample roasted chestnuts.
Newport News & Hampton
Journey a little further down Interstate 64 to Newport News, where a plethora of winter activities await you and your family. The big draw is Hollydazzle in City Center at Oyster Point, held the first Friday of December. The event combines music, special effects, and fireworks in an amazing show around Fountain Plaza, with arts and crafts and other children’s Entertainment. Or, stop by Newport News Park, where, through the entire holiday season, families can take in the sights and sounds of the holidays during the eighteenth annual Celebration in Lights, a two-mile drive through the park. This spectacular illuminated show features more than 700,000 lights depicting various themes including Winter Wonderland, Forest Friends, Battle of the Ironclads, and Santa’s Enchanted Kingdom.
Three of the city’s museums, The Mariners’ Museum, Virginia Living Museum, and The Newsome House Museum and Cultural Center, also join in the celebration. At VLM, guests can enjoy a special program in the planetarium, Laser Holidays, and an animated Christmas light display featuring classics like Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer and Jingle Bell Rock.
At The Mariners’ Museum, families should investigate Children’s Craft Day on December 3, or learn about international holiday traditions during Holidays Around The World Family Day on the fourth. The Newsome House Museum and Cultural Center offers events related to Kwanzaa, including a film and workshop about the history and culture of the holiday, on December 18.
Meanwhile, next door, Hampton is also hopping with holiday happenings, including ice skating at the Virginia Air and Space Center, a holiday nautical parade, and the Hampton Holly Days street parade, concluding a year-long celebration of the city’s four hundredth birthday.