Christmas is one cultural battle that the South won. And Richmond, as a city infatuated with the past, lights up every Christmas in warm remembrance of its Victorian heyday.
The Virginia capital has a long tradition of celebrating the holiday from its Colonial days forward, even when Christmas was controversial. The Christmas of author Clement Moore--wrapped around the jolly image of St. Nick and aglow in the warm wash of "tradition"--only came about at the close of the 19th century, thanks mostly to a big push from the South. Christmas wasn't even declared a federal holiday until 1870, long put off by the influence of the Puritan pilgrims who settled New England and sought to eliminate the holiday due to its pagan influences. Puritan leader Cotton Mather condemned the holiday for its "long eating, hard drinking, lewd gaming [and] rude reveling," but Virginians, mostly Anglicans, made merry every year forward from the first Christmas Day in 1607 in Jamestown.
Oddly enough, it was the tender sentiment that Christmas evoked in a war-weary country after the Civil War that pushed the holiday to greater prominence nationally. At the turn of the century, Christmas entered its Gilded Age, and shortly thereafter Santas appeared in department stores everywhere. The department stores, of course, precipitated this century's free fall of Christmas into commercialism, and its migration to the mall--with nary a nod to the holiday's religious foundation.
The charm of downtown Richmond at Christmas, however, is that it's possible to stand on cobblestone streets and survey Victorian-era homes graciously decorated with candles in each window and greenery over the doors. No one competes for a place on the Tacky Lights Tour--those homes are safely ensconced in the suburbs. Instead of dragging a heavy winter coat around an overheated mall, last year I found myself strolling Monument Avenue at dusk, winter nipping at my cheeks, surveying the grand old homes that open each year for the Fan District Holiday House Tour.
The Fan is said to be the largest intact Victorian-era neighborhood in the nation, and Monument Avenue (the only street to be designated a National Historic Landmark) is its centerpiece. To walk the Fan at Christmas is to vicariously experience being in a Currier & Ives print--it takes a village to make Christmas feel authentic.
It's possible to step back in time at other places in holiday Richmond. Maymont, a 100-acre Victorian estate on the banks of the James River, each year re-creates the sights and sounds of Christmas Day 1893 with tours of the period decorations of Maymont House. Carolers and bell ringers stroll the grounds, while visitors enjoy carriage rides, wassail, the "Little People Only" gift shop, and a final carol sing during this one-day event. The Tudor-era Agecroft Hall also hosts a Christmas Open House, where guests can enjoy hot cider and gingerbread while surveying period decorations. Originally constructed in 1487 in England, Agecroft was dismantled and reconstructed in Richmond in 1926.
There are a few "modern traditions" in Richmond, however. The earliest on the calendar is the Tree Lighting ceremony at the historic Jefferson Hotel, where a soaring evergreen is illuminated in the hotel's famous rotunda as "Nutcracker" characters, Santa & Mrs. C. and many elves entertain guests. Perhaps the most striking is the Grand Illumination--a two-block reindeer fantasy of lights--near the charming cobblestone shopping district of Shockoe Slip. The first Friday of December, downtown office parties are organized around the time when the reindeer light sculptures and all the lights outlining the tall buildings are turned on at once. The lights stay on throughout the holiday season, and gaggles of small children can always be found there gawking.
Patrons of the performing arts can enjoy most of the traditional Christmas stage productions in Richmond, too. This year, there is one unusual twist: "The Nutcracker" has been updated from the classic ballet (still performed each year by the Richmond Ballet) to an Imax film experience (no dancing). Handel's "Messiah" is presented by the Richmond Symphony, "A Christmas Carol" by the Henrico Theatre Company.
Periodically, Richmond makes the news for civic controversies still swirling about the Civil War, bringing scrutiny and criticism of the city's firm hold on the past. At Christmas, however, this is a welcome aspect--a beckoning bit of charm in the midst of the modern choke-hold of Christmas at your neighborhood mega-mall.
WAYS & MEANS
GETTING THERE: Richmond is about two hours south of the Beltway via I-95. Amtrak (1-800-872-7245) also goes there--sort of. (The station is inconveniently located in the western suburbs, making transportation downtown tricky.)
BEING THERE: The Jefferson Hotel's Tree Lighting event is 6 p.m. Nov. 29. The Grand Illumination is 6 to 8 p.m. Dec. 3 on Cary Street between 10th and 12th (804-344-3232). A Victorian Christmas at Maymont is noon to 6 Dec. 5 (804-358-7166). All three events are free.
Lewis Ginter Botanical Garden's GardenFest of Lights runs Dec. 1 to 30 (804-262-9887, $5), and Agecroft Hall's Christmas Open House is 12:30 to 5 Dec. 12 (804-353-4241, free). The Fan District Holiday House Tour is 1 to 7 p.m. Dec. 12 (804-254-2550; tickets are $15 in advance, $20 the day of the tour). At the Science Museum of Virginia, the Imax "Nutcracker" runs Friday through the end of December (804-367-0000, $4). Richmond Ballet's "Nutcracker" at the Carpenter Center runs Dec. 10-22 (804-359-0906, $22 to $47). The Richmond Symphony presents Handel's "Messiah" at 8 p.m. Dec. 4 (804-788-1212, $10 to $38).
WHERE TO STAY: Downtown Richmond hosts a mix of historic and modern hotels. If you're flush, the national historic landmark Jefferson (1-800-424-8014) has rooms from $195 to $1,600. Less luxurious but also downtown: the restored Linden Row Inn (1-800-348-7424, $89 to $179), the Omni Richmond Hotel (804-344-7000, $159 average) and the Crowne Plaza Hotel (804-788-0900, $149 average).
WHERE TO EAT: Richmond's revitalized downtown has two good neighborhoods for dining out--Shockoe Slip and Shockoe Bottom. The eclectic menu at the Frog and the Redneck (804-648-3764), with former Washingtonian Jimmy Sneed its celebrity chef, has garnered national attention. Seafood lovers can head to The Hard Shell (804-644-5341). For upscale Cuban, try Havana '59 (804-649-2822). None Such Place (804-644-0832) serves nouvelle cuisine in Richmond's oldest commercial building. For casual fun, chow down at the River City Diner (804-644-9418), where milkshakes are served the old-fashioned way. Across the James, Legend's (804-232-8871) serves up a river view and city backdrop with its microbrewed beers.
DETAILS: Call Downtown Presents (804-643-2826) about any event downtown, or visit www.richmondva.org.