Chowning's Tavern in Colonial Williamsburg has a distinctive wreath made of Eastern red cedar, millet, Japanese lanterns, artemisia, and oyster and scallop shells. Picture: John McDonnell/The Washington Post.
Chowning's Tavern in Colonial Williamsburg has a distinctive wreath made of Eastern red cedar, millet, Japanese lanterns, artemisia, and oyster and scallop shells. Picture: John McDonnell/The Washington Post.
The George Wythe House, built in the mid-1750s, is decorated with greenery and fruit for the holidays and has a candle in every window. Wythe was Virginia's first signer of the Declaration of Independence. Picture: John McDonnell/The Washington Post.
The George Wythe House, built in the mid-1750s, is decorated with greenery and fruit for the holidays and has a candle in every window. Wythe was Virginia's first signer of the Declaration of Independence. Picture: John McDonnell/The Washington Post.
This antler and pear wreath hangs on the door of Hartwell Perry's Tavern, a private home. The residents made the wreath to reflect the tavern sign, which features a deer and a pear tree. Picture: John McDonnell/The Washington Post.
This antler and pear wreath hangs on the door of Hartwell Perry's Tavern, a private home. The residents made the wreath to reflect the tavern sign, which features a deer and a pear tree. Picture: John McDonnell/The Washington Post.

The pineapple-studded wreaths, oyster-shell-trimmed swags and apple fans are some of the highlights of the annual holiday tours at 18th-century Colonial Williamsburg. They're also the icons of what's become known as the classic Williamsburg look. But when tour guides drop the bomb that none of these decorations, nor the single candles lit in the windows at dusk, would have been there in the 1700s, visitors sometimes gasp.

"It's a surprise to many, for sure," says Jim Jolly, one of the interpreters who leads the seasonal walks through the streets that begin Thanksgiving week and end Jan. 1. Williamsburg, the restored 18th-century capital of Virginia, has a festive air, with the scent of wood-burning fires and the sound of a fife-and-drum corps.

"We do a good job of getting people to feel like they're in the 18th century, between the folks in costume, the carriages riding by and the old shops," Jolly adds. "So when folks see the decorations, they can easily think they were done that way in the 18th century."

Very little documentation exists that the colonists who settled in Virginia did any kind of Christmas decorating inside or outside their homes. "In 1934, someone in the town put up a couple of Christmas trees around the historic area and covered them in colored lights, which did not go over well," says Carl Childs, director of the John D. Rockefeller Jr. Library and director of archives and records at Colonial Williamsburg. Officials involved with the restoration preferred to keep the look authentic and asked their researchers to look at what was done in the 1700s. They found that Christmas at that time was a religious celebration, not a decorating frenzy as it is today.

Colonial Williamsburg officials realised there needed to be a compromise between authenticity and modern expectations. First, they borrowed a practice of lighting single candles in the windows from a tradition already popular in some other Colonial cities. This also reflected the British custom of lighting candles in honor of the king's birthday. Back in the 1930s, the real lighted candles were placed in dishes of water in Williamsburg historic houses, but fear of fire meant round-the-clock surveillance. Soon, they switched to electric candles.

Outdoors, they decided to display all-natural decorations using Virginia ingredients that would be familiar to a colonist living in the 1700s. The decorations have evolved over time, and eventually fruit and greenery became the hallmark of the Williamsburg look.

Planning the decorations is a year-round process, says Laura Viancour, director of landscaping, who has worked there since 1982. She supervises the design of hundreds of wreaths and swags, ordering materials, plus harvesting locally grown greens including Eastern red cedar, poet's laurel, hemlock and magnolia, as well as berries. She and her staff, a dozen designers and eight carpenters, start at the end of September making dried arrangements.

The staff, with the help of volunteers, decorates exteriors of more than 100 sites, including exhibition buildings, trade shops, Colonial houses and taverns, for the six-week holiday period. Many of the 24 historical trades sites create their own door decorations representing the shops, such as the wigmaker whose wreaths this year were dotted with tiny wigs and clay curlers, and the bindery, which hung replicas of 18th-century Virginia This year, the supply list included 2,552 wreaths, 4,450 yards of pine roping and 79 cases of fruit, including apples, lemons and pomegranates.