The traditions that I most associate with Thanksgiving are family gatherings and history. I grew up in the era when we celebrated the Pilgrims with their reported first Thanksgiving as they survived the year and celebrated the harvest with the local Indian Tribes. In college, my sociology professor wished us a “happy Native American Exploitation holiday”. Guess he must have been a liberal educational elite. This Thanksgiving, family is us with Linda’s mother, and history is Colonial Williamsburg.
For a brief history of family gatherings, I recall only a limited amount of childhood events. The gathering tradition occurred more during my college years when Dave and Nancy married, bringing together the Larson-Gaddis clans. The Gaddis family had being joining friends in Yosemite for some years. This grew into the Asilomar convention years, with up to 40 “family”, with emphasis on “extended”, driving to Pacific Grove for several days of communing, eating, walking on the beach, and golfing. After I moved to NYC, then Alexandria, now WV, I joined a few of these events, but travel was limited by work schedules.
With the passing of the Gaddis clan over the past few years, Asilomar became a place of memories. Meanwhile, Linda and I were hosting the gathering in the mountains around the fire pit and table. Part of this event was to bring the Three Sisters together yearly. But, work and travel schedules made this event more difficult, thus we moved this to earlier in the fall (see Heritage Weekend). Last year, Linda’s mother and brother’s family came form RI, and we had the most fun touring the Smithsonian museums and eating our Thanksgiving meal in Chinatown, without a slice of turkey or stuffing. Meanwhile, Dave and Felicia have forged a new tradition of using the holiday weekend to serve others by helping with construction projects at an orphanage in Mexico, and Sue and Charlie are cruising in the South Pacific. We are off to Colonial Williamsburg.
I hate to tell what a wonderful deal this package is, for fear that it might become more popular, thus intruding on our enjoyment of what the crowds are not doing. Colonial Williamsburg offers lodging schemes. You have two nights in a “tavern room”, which are the several of the buildings on the Duke of Gloucester Street. We were just across from Chownings Tavern, next to the Courthouse and Magazine. You cannot be more central that this (imagine having your private bathroom in the middle of the historic district!). You have a three-day pass for the historic district with access to all the buildings and programs, plus discounts on additional fee concerts, etc. You receive breakfast in the Williamsburg Inn dinning room. We arranged Thanksgiving dinner at one of the King’s Arms Tavern. And, to stimulate your wallet, you receive a $100 gift card to use in the shops or restaurants. Last year, we used one of these lodging deals and managed to spend that gift card at least three times over!
Historic District. The buildings of Colonial Williamsburg began as the restoration project of Dr. Wm A. R. Goodwin and his “associate”, later revealed to be John D. Rockefeller, Jr. They purchased 140 private homes and structures, which made up the core of the project. Their intent was both to preserve the buildings and the history that occurred within those buildings. Today, with many additional sites recovered, researched and restored, we can wander about the historic district,
touring homes, trade shops, businesses, a plantation, and government offices. Each open site has living-history interpreters who guide you with information about that location, it’s operation, and connection with the social activities of the mid to late 18th century. Additionally, other interpreters portray characters from the time, some well documented people and other composites of those who fulfilled different roles. Some of these interpreters walk about the district providing an experience of the 18th century. Others act out various scenes from the time.
Programs. Walking tours and scheduled events around the historic district provide entertainment and education in this living history environment. The interpreters portray specific time periods each day, providing general information, but also descriptions of the specific events of that time period. They will entertain questions with detailed historic answers. But, ask a questions about the 1781 siege at Yorktown during the 1776 Declaration of Independence day and the interpreter might think that you are sooth-sayer warning Ceaser of the Ides-of-March. While many
of these programs may seem on the surface to be aren’t-we-great-to-be-Americans rah-rah-rah, the programs do also raise questions about the institution of slavery that the Philadelphia Congress evaded, or questions of theology and religious traditions that they were not exactly as free as we might to believe founders intended.
A highlight of each afternoon, is the Revolutionary City program. This occurs between 3 and 5 p.m. Various scenes are
acted out at closely arranged locations, depicting conversations among the town’s people, the leaders both for the Crown the Colonies. Some of these act out events that progressed our history. Others demonstrate the affect on the people of these events. All of these are theatrical in style. At the end of the program, the Colonial Williamsburg Fife & Drum Corps leads the interpreters and audience westward on Duke of Gloucester Street, neatly ending at our tavern room lodging.
Many of the programs draw reference from primary sources and then add audience interaction. At “Cry Witch” we witnessed a trial in the Capitol Courtroom of woman accused to be a witch. The prosecution’s comments, witnesses’ and defendant’s testimonies were the actual words recorded in trial transcripts. Then, we in the audience were assigned as additional judges who could ask questions. The response of the actors depended upon what we asked. We attended two other events based on historic figures.
George Washington met with us to discuss the events in 1774 leading up to the Continental Congress in Philadelphia and Thomas Jefferson met with us to discuss the drafting of the Declaration of Independence in 1776. While some of each of these conversations was scripted, much of the time was the interpreters answering audience questions with the events and knowledge that informed that time. The audience might become as passionate about their questions as the interpreters about their answers.
In the exchange with Jefferson, several questions arose about the apparent hypocrisy of owning slaves while publicly decrying the institution of slavery. The interpreter talked about phrases that he had
attempted to write into the Declaration that would have promoted phasing out slavery, but that these had become points of debate and refusal from the delegates from Georgia. Rather than lose their support and unanimity in the vote, Jefferson struck that item. In its place, he penned the famous words, “life, liberty, and pursuit of happiness”, taking the concept from John Locke, but purposely substituting “pursuit of happiness” for “property”, to subtly push the issue that property (including slaves) would not be in the founding of this nation. He also outlined the complicated economic systems that kept the landowners indebted, such that they could not afford to run their plantations without slave labor, and the social threats that freed slaves would face if legal processes were not established before releasing their bondage.
The concept of property was often mentioned in the programs, which we attended when the issue of slavery came up. Interpreters freely discussed the implications of owning other people, whether they were slaves at the Great Hope Plantation, shop owners, or people on the street. They talked about how the attitude of ownership allowed plantation and business owners to use their slaves for labor, to sell that labor as needed for economic gain or to pay debt, and to break up families to control more willful slaves. We had an individual conversation with a mulatto woman who sat beside the street decorating a broom. We asked her about marriage customs (jumping the broom), which she responded to. But, she also informed us of her peers who were used by their masters for “breeding” because selling slaves was more lucrative than the products that they might produce. She talked about other women, who were punished if they resisted the sexual advances of the masters or of men other than their husbands at their master’s direction. While Colonial Williamsburg is mostly family entertainment, they have matured in their retelling of the stories.
Evening programs of entertainment are plentiful, mostly for an additional fee. Music and stories dominate the candle-lit events. We bowed out of the ghost walk tours, and went to the Governor’s Palace for chamber music. We joined in storytelling from slaves, as they relayed the tales that their parents had told them to instruct them in how to behave with their owners and among each other.
Shopping. The greater Williamsburg area is an outlet mall destination, though this does not fit our style of travel or shopping. We could get lost in the various gift shops in Colonial Williamsburg. As the Civic was pretty full when we drove to Colonia Williamsburg, we contained our purchases. I think Linda was ready to call 911 for me though when I was in the Visitor’s Center book store. Asphyxiation by selection. I came out with only one book, which she had handed to me.
Dinning. If the above entertainment did not satiate you, the dinning surely should. When I mentioned before that breakfast was at the Williamsburg Inn, do no limit your imagination to a buffet line, Eggo-waffles or Rice Crispies and a banana. Start with a crab-asparagus-gruyere omelet, or sweat potato pancakes with pecan syrup, or pan-fried trout. Not only are these delicious, but sustaining for the day. Even I could last until dinner time with a mid-afternoon supplement of apple and crackers, without eating my
bread plate while waiting for dinner. Colonial Williamsburg runs several taverns with food ranging from Brunswick stew to peanut soup to fricasseed seafood to beef and venison. Allot a couple of hours for each meal to enjoy the flavors, and musicians who come to the dinning rooms, and conversations around your table.
What sets Colonial Williamsburg apart from other amusement destinations is the sensory phenomenon that could not be predicted. In season, the colors of the gardens can overwhelm you. Even at this time of year, with most of the leaves off the trees, the brilliant green moss on the roof tiles glistened in the morning sun after a dawn thundershower. The aroma of burning oak drifted from a fireplace as we walked along the street. The illumination of candle light at an evening concert colored the notes from the harpsichord. The cold north wind picked up the leaves in swirls as the women abandoned in Williamsburg during the Revolutionary War acted out their scene in the Revolutionary City drama. The blood red clouds of sunset stood before the Fife and Drum Corps as they marched to the Magazine to met up with troop preparing for the siege of Yorktown. No stage manager could have worked out such memorable special effects.
The question is not whether we shall return next year, but whether we need to wait that long.