Grand Illumination

Continuing a Tradition since the 1930s.


Mattie Smith

The C.W. Fife & Drum Jr Corps performance before the fireworks display begins.

The fireworks were set off in two different areas, one at the Capitol Building and one at the Governor’s Palace. This was a view from the Duke of Gloucester Street.

Grand Illumination has been a tradition in Williamsburg, Virginia since the 1930s and it has always been held on the first weekend in December.

Before the days of modern technology, people would place candles on all of their windows in order to transition into the season of Advent. During the 1900s, people gathered on the streets to visit with one another, to sing, to dance, and to play games. It was a time of community gathering. According to a Colonial Williamsburg interpreter who was portraying George Wythe, “Fireworks were added in 1957 to celebrate the 350th anniversary of Jamestown.”

Today, Grand Illumination is pretty similar to what it was in the 1900s. Employees of Colonial Williamsburg still put candles in the windows of the recreated and refurbished colonial homes. These candles and the wreathes placed on doors and windows create a relaxing ambience as you walk down the old streets of historic Williamsburg. Interpreters still continue the tradition of singing and dancing in the streets. This year, Colonial Williamsburg invited an Appalachian group to perform near the Capitol building right before the fireworks. They also had interpreters around C.W. performing as well.

Another tradition that has returned with only slight modifications is the Colonial Williamsburg Fife and Drum Corps.

On the first Grand Illumination weekend, the Junior Corps play their first performance in front of the George Wythe House.

After two challenging years, they were finally able to have their entire corps performing together since before the COVID-19 pandemic. This was a special moment for the young adults of Fife and Drum. Junior Corps member Benjamin Smith Jr. reported that he “missed being able to play with everyone and I really enjoyed being able to perform for a large group of people.”

One of the precautions the Colonial Williamsburg Foundation has taken for the Fife and Drum Corps is that they must stand still when performing and wear masks at all times. Some of our Lafayette Rams are in the Junior & Senior Corps, including seniors  Jack Seftas, Aaron Johnson and Jake Harris.

Both the Senior Corps and Junior Corps performed in different places around Colonial Williamsburg in an effort to reduce crowds and practice social distancing. In spite of this, D.O.G. Street was very crowded and there wasn’t much social distancing. According to one anonymous tourist, “It was really nice to see the Fife and Drum Corps playing again. We’ve been here every year and this year does not disappoint.” Pre-COVID, the Fife & Drum Corps would play at opposite ends of the Duke of Gloucester Street and would march to the middle to “battle it out.”

People gathered in the hundreds during the first weekend of Grand Illumination. This crowd gathered during the first Junior Corps Fife & Drum performance.

Many people travel to Williamsburg during this time. In fact, almost all hotels in the City of Williamsburg are near capacity, with many of the more expensive hotels, such as the Williamsburg Inn, completely booked for all three weekends. According to Lieutenant Ben Smith of the Williamsburg Police Department, “A lot people put their chairs out on the Palace Green in the mornings before the festivities begin, in order to claim their spot.”

Parking is also an issue for Grand Illumination. Some people may need to be prepared to walk at least a mile before you get to C.W. Remember to be safe when parking and walking across the streets.

This year, the Colonial Williamsburg Foundation decide to have Grand Illumination on the first, second, and third weekend in December. This was decided in order to prevent massive crowds and allow for social distancing. Many tourists and community members who attended the first weekend’s events are planning on coming more than once.

The fireworks display this year was phenomenal. Approximately 15 minutes long, the display started right after the Fife & Drum Corps performances at the Capitol Building and the Governor’s Palace at precisely 7pm.

About 30 minutes after the fireworks show, Colonial Williamsburg looked almost deserted as people exited C.W.

After the fireworks display, there was a mass exodus of people trying to leave the Colonial City. Lieutenant Smith says that it is okay to wait and hang out a while before trying to get to your car. In fact, he recommends it. If you find yourself stuck in the throng attempting to leave, consider enjoying the lights and scenery for a few extra minutes.  Be sure to grab some hot chocolate before you leave. During the first weekend, many people stopped by restaurants after the fireworks display to grab dinner. In fact, many restaurants were completely full.

To find more about Colonial Williamsburg’s Grand Illumination visit their website. The link can be found here.