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Inside Christmas!

Holiday Traditions – Behind the Scenes

That magical, yet often hectic time of year is here. And if holiday shopping, party planning, and the madness of the season have you stressed to the max, it’s time for a well-deserved break. That’s where the city you love comes to the rescue. Richmond has just the ticket – from grand illuminations and vintage celebrations to parades and theatrical productions – to help your family get back in the holiday spirit.

“The holiday season is a great time of year… because we have something for everyone,” said Jack Berry, president and CEO of Richmond Region Tourism. “Many of us host out-of-town friends and family at this time of year and enjoy sharing the Richmond Region holiday experience with our loved ones,” Jack said.

And there’s plenty of merriment to go around! Here’s a behind-the-scenes peek at some of Richmond’s favorite holiday attractions.


Victorian Holidays at Maymont
Victorian Holidays at Maymont

1. Victorian Holidays at Maymont
Picture this. You wake up Christmas morning and gaze upon a 12-foot-tall tree decorated with handcrafted ornaments made from paper, lace, ribbon, gilded nuts, and silk and dried flowers. There are no strings of light wrapped around this tree; instead, wax candles burn from its branches. Nearby, the butler stands ready with a pitcher of water just in case.

Children race down the stairs to unwrap a few gifts – typically books, a doll or metal toy, a china set, board game, or hand-knitted sweater. Later, you enjoy oysters and turtle soup for dinner.

Welcome to 1893, when James Henry and Sallie Dooley celebrated their first Christmas in their new home at Maymont. Compared to today’s festivities, it might sound a bit tame – no video games, high-tech toys, or singing Elmos.

To bring the past to life, Maymont has spent years researching the Victorian era and what the period was like for the Dooley family. They decorate the home each season, as it would have been in the late nineteenth century.

Donors pitch in by purchasing reproduction ornaments, and then decorate the tree with the ornaments they purchased. Visit Maymont this holiday season and you’ll be whisked off to the Dooley era thanks to festive carriage rides, musical entertainers, and forty historical interpreters – including the distinguished butler with the water pitcher.

Richmond Ballet’s The Nutcracker
Richmond Ballet’s The Nutcracker

2. Richmond Ballet’s The Nutcracker
It wouldn’t be Christmas for many Richmonders without The Nutcracker. But even diehard fans who see the show every year might be surprised to learn that it takes four 52-foot tractor trailers to move the show from the Richmond Ballet studios on Canal Street to Richmond CenterStage.

Fifty pounds of snow are used in each performance and much to our delight, more than 10,000 pounds of scenery and lights hang overhead. It takes five hours to focus the more than 350 lights hanging in the theater.

There are more than 15,000 hand-sewn sequins attached to the costumes in the production. It’s a labor of love to be sure, but it takes forty hours to make a single tutu like the ones worn by the Sugar Plum Fairy and the Snow Queen. The fastest costume change takes less than twenty-five seconds.

If you think you have it bad during the busy holiday season, consider this: Nearly 130 loads of laundry are done during the entire run of The Nutcracker.? The Richmond Ballet male dancers go through an average of three t-shirts during each rehearsal day. The female company dancers and apprentices go through an average of three pointe shoes each week in preparation for the performances they’ll give during the nationally-renowned production.

The show uses a half-ton of dry ice during its run, but that doesn’t keep anyone cool. In fact, nearly 15,000 sheets of facial tissue are used to blot sweat from the dancers’ faces between exits and entrances.

The James Center
The James Center

3. The James Center
When the first tenants moved to the James Center complex in 1984, developer Henry Faison wanted to give them a sense of place. What started as a party for new tenants quickly became a Richmond holiday tradition enjoyed by about a thousand visitors a night.

While it might be tempting to try to tame a reindeer, these creatures are quite fragile. Made from vine, they are wrapped in white lights and secured to the ground. But it never fails – each year visitors try to ride them. The result is never favorable for the reindeer. Several have been broken, and three have been stolen. This year, let’s just say Santa will be watching to keep his entire RVA reindeer fleet safe and secure.

Holiday Activities at The Jefferson Hotel
Holiday Activities at The Jefferson Hotel

4. Holiday Activities at The Jefferson Hotel
Have you seen those make-your-own gingerbread house kits at Kroger? It’s everything you need, pre-made and tucked in a box. Well, each holiday season, Executive Pastry Chef Sara Ayyash and her team of five challenge themselves to create an innovative and fun holiday spectacle in gingerbread that will delight and amaze children of all ages. Last season, they skillfully crafted more than 350 pounds of traditional gingerbread and more than 450 pounds of royal icing into Santa’s old-fashioned steam engine train. Another 400 cherry sours, a hundred pounds of jellybeans, fifty pounds of Starbursts, twenty-five pounds of Hershey Kisses, and fifty pounds of Red Hots were also used to perfect the scene.

So how do they brainstorm such creative holiday masterpieces? They have sweet imaginations! What started twenty-seven years ago as simple gingerbread houses has become much more – villages, Santa’s workshop, and transportation, too, with the addition of locomotives.

“As I watch the previous year’s display taken down, I begin to think about the plan for next year,” Sara said. “Inspiration surrounds me daily. The trick is to see beyond the surface of my imagination. I want to create that holiday memory where dreams and reality cross paths.”

This year’s theme, as in year’s past, is kept secret until the tree lighting held December 2. But in addition to the gingerbread design in the Palm Court Lobby, you can count on seeing hundreds of poinsettias, countless yards of garland and ribbon, thousands of lights, and dozens of toy soldiers on two levels. With so many decorations for all of Richmond to enjoy, it’s a good thing the Jefferson owns off-season storage space right next door.

Miracle of Christmas Live at Metro Richmond Zoo
Miracle of Christmas Live at Metro Richmond Zoo

5. Miracle of Christmas Live at Metro Richmond Zoo
Sheep and donkeys and cows, oh my! Twenty-five of them to be exact. And you can see them all during the Metro Richmond Zoo’s production of Miracle of Christmas Live.

“Zoo Director Jim Andelin has always wanted to do something to help people understand the real meaning of Christmas,” said Diane Barrus, production chairman. “It can be such a whirlwind during the holidays.

It’s great to slow down and contemplate what Christmas is all about.” This marks the eleventh year for the production, which celebrates the birth of Jesus Christ through a live re-enactment of the Christmas story featuring animals from the zoo. Diane is one of nearly 400 people to volunteer each December, and each season, she said, visitors are amazed that the event is free. It’s the zoo’s way of giving back, she said, plain and simple.

“It’s amazing that so many people give up their time just a few days before Christmas to make this production a reality,” Diane said. “The true spirit of Christmas really shines through.”

Glorious Christmas Nights
Glorious Christmas Nights

6. Glorious Christmas Nights
Thirty years and counting. That’s how long the West End Assembly of God has been producing a Christmas musical for all of Richmond. It’s no easy task. As the production has grown from two performances a year to eighteen, the church has come to rely on more and more volunteers.

About 800 volunteers (about half of whom are cast members) will be needed for this year’s offering, “A Storybook Christmas,” which follows two radically different families as they plan an engagement party during the holidays. Volunteers are needed for everything, from directing traffic to helping people find their seats.

For many, the event has become a family affair. Some have been performing for three generations, with parents and children acting side-by-side. Orchestra conductor Thelma Ruhlen has participated – either playing or conducting – in every show for thirty years.

“It’s a ministry,” she said. “It’s what I do to help touch people’s lives for Christ. That’s why we all do it.”

This year, Crystal Chapman is traveling from New York to choreograph the production. She has choreographed such shows as “A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum,” and “Oklahoma!” and has performed in all aspects of theater. One of her favorite roles is the lead can-can dancer in “Gigi.”

“It’s pretty exciting to have this big-name choreographer,” said Vanessa Fletcher, another volunteer. “She’s such a great teacher. I can’t wait for people to see what we are capable of under her guidance.”

Richmond Christmas Parade
Richmond Christmas Parade

7. Richmond Christmas Parade
“Most people think the weather is the biggest enemy of the parade. But it’s the light poles.” Tara Berry, parade spokesperson, speaks from first-hand experience. Just three years ago, poor Rudolph was impaled on a traffic light pole on North Meadow Street, slowly deflating in front of thousands of horrified children.

In 2012, a giant fruitcake met its match as well. It was simply too large to clear those pesky light poles. And in the mid-nineties, about half-a-dozen balloons, including Gumby, deflated when they could not outmaneuver those sharp posts.

Let’s hope for zero casualties this time around. The thirtieth annual Dominion Christmas Parade features more than a hundred units and is expected to draw more than 100,000 spectators.

The event kicks off the holiday season for many. And it has attracted some pretty notable grand marshals, including Blair Underwood, Chevy Chase, Steve Martin, Paul Simon, astronaut Leland Melvin, and Kenny Rogers. Not bad for an event that started as a small, Richmond Jaycees project. Today, it has become the largest attended single-day event of the year in the Richmond area.

Genworth Financial’s Holiday Village
Genworth Financial’s Holiday Village

8. Genworth Financial’s Holiday Village
The Holiday Village at the Children’s Museum in Richmond explores six holiday traditions celebrated by our community: Christmas (Christian); Diwali (Hindu); Eid (Muslim); Hanukkah (Jewish); Kwanzaa (African); and Lunar New Year (Asian). Started in 1997, the village has grown from three small mantels at the Children’s Museum’s old site at Navy Hill to six Fan-inspired houses at its larger quarters next to the Science Museum of Virginia on Broad Street in Richmond. Each house is filled with toys, books, dolls, games, and other traditions relevant to that holiday. “These homes are inspired by real families and real kids,” said Claire Mehalick, the museum’s special projects manager. “We want to celebrate the commonalities we all share.”

These winter holidays share similar themes, including light, food, and family bonding. The goal, Claire said, is to bring our Richmond neighbors closer together as they grow to understand how similar we all are.

The Richmond Community Nativity Pageant
The Richmond Community Nativity Pageant

9. The Richmond Community Nativity Pageant
One of the oldest public Christmas traditions in Richmond, this age-old retelling of the birth of Jesus Christ, can trace its roots to the early twenties when a small group began singing Christmas carols in Capitol Square. As the crowds grew, organizers were forced to move the event to larger quarters and the Carillon in Byrd Park seemed a logical site.

Douglas Southall Freeman wrote the original script and served as the first narrator until World War II. That script is still used today. Freeman’s nephew, G. Mallory Freeman, took over narration duties after the war and continued in that role until the mid seventies, when his son, Allen Freeman, followed suit. Talk about family tradition!

“As a child, I was in the production as a shepherd, then worked my way up to Roman soldier,” Allen recalls. “It’s become a family tradition. It truly wouldn’t be Christmas without it.”

Allen’s two grown sons, Alex and John, have been in the pageant since they were toddlers and return home each year to keep the tradition alive. Many families have participated for three or four generations and many attendees wouldn’t consider missing this celebration.

“You form lasting bonds that to this day are very special,” Allen said. “It’s been an incredible experience.”

Dominion GardenFest of Lights
Dominion GardenFest of Lights

10. Dominion GardenFest of Lights
Mention Lewis Ginter Botanical Garden’s GardenFest of Lights to most people and they’ll gasp at the thought of trying to pull off such a massive holiday extravaganza. It’s a good thing the garden has a dedicated group of volunteers – approximately 200 contributing close to 4,000 hours.

Then mention the electric bill – $22,500 for the 44-day run – and you’ll hear a second gasp.

“Dominion’s sponsorship helps make the show happen!” said Beth Monroe, Lewis Ginter’s marketing director. “We are so honored…that it has found its place in the community as a real holiday tradition.”

More than 74,000 people visited Lewis Ginter last season for the GardenFest of Lights, up from about 8,500 during the 1998 season – the first year of Dominion’s sponsorship. Another huge crowd is expected this year, as the garden will be adorned with more than twenty miles – yes miles – of lights. Many will be LED lights, a shift from previous years.

In 2007, staff began replacing traditional lights with LEDs. LED lights are a little more expensive than incandescent, but save money in the long run because they are more energy efficient. Anything to cut back on that monstrous electric bill!


There you have it – some of the most popular organized holiday events around town. With so many to choose from, it might be difficult deciding which to check out and when. It’s a good thing December has thirty-one days and some of the festivities extend through the new year – that way we’ll have time to enjoy them all!

Janet Showalter is a freelance writer who lives in King George with her husband.
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