Yes Virginia, Christmas will come early in Williamsburg this year when the fathers of this old English village within a modern American town reach into their corporate bag and pull out another time trick. Tricking time, you see, is one of the things Colonial Williamsburg does best.

Throughout any year this enclave offers the look and feel of two centuries ago so that (as its motto says) "the future may learn from the past." From January to December the Historic Area represents an antique era as faithfully as research and civility permit. (No, pigs don't run loose nor do the streets run like sewers, though some critics cry "sham" at every anachronism, even hygienic ones.)

Then when Christmas nears, this restored 18th-century town virtually skips through time. It borrows gambits from Dickens' London, trims evergreen trees a` la ancient Germanic tradition, adds elements invented locally within living memory and, with perhaps a nod to pagan practice, carries on festivities and feasting toward Twelfth Night, or 'til New Year's Day at least.

In sum, the enclave cooks up its own yuletide compote of the historical, the colorful and the diverting, the ancient and the now, adding a hint of the holy and lacing it all with a dash of patriotism. It's complex, like Christmas itself, because Williamsburg has evolved into many places for most people. Virginia's capital from 1699 to 1780, it was re-created as a national shrine that became a popular resort and a community of museums, then a conference center and a hotbed of scholarship as well.

As for the timing this year, the bedecking of the town with greenery and the start of special entertainments occur on Dec. 6. One week later the season's traditional kickoff, Grand Illumination, comes on Dec. 13 and the schedule of diversions moves into high gear. This slate of events offers an array of surprising choices:

Serene concerts of 18th-century music played in antique style on period instruments in the Palace Ballroom, farces in the Lodge theater, street fairs, yule log lightings, tree trimmings, lectures, decorations workshops where novices learn to make folk art ornaments and take them home pleased as Punch.

The Abby Aldrich Rockefeller Folk Art Collection displays its celebrated array of antique toys and doll houses each December. The shops at Merchants Square -- including first-rate toy, book and Ivy-ish clothing stores -- all cater to last-minute shoppers. The Historic Area welcomes all comers to reconstructed edifices like the Capitol and faithfully furnished residences of founding fathers Peyton Randolph and George Wythe. One can do it all, or pick and choose, or do nothing at all with the conviction of a Patrick Henry.

Having both visited and lived on storied Duke of Gloucester Street, I've found escape from both the ordinary and the glitzy in Williamsburg. Now I have learned the best way to go: rent a Colonial House, one of some 25 special dwellings and taverns that dot the 173-acre Historic Area. On our latest visit, my wife, small son, au pair, dog and I stayed in the two-story, two-bath Orlando Jones Office without getting in anyone's hair, including each other's. It beat even living here; we didn't have to make a bed or wash a pot.

Whether the one-room Kitchen or the Brick House Tavern, a Colonial House is a reconstructed or restored building equipped with modern amenities (plumbing and television). Each is a unique building of colonial character furnished with period antiques and reproductions. Many have working fireplaces; all are a phone call away from room service in the person of a waiter in a van or bike-riding bellman.

A Colonial House offers complete privacy (if you rent it in toto) plus all the comforts of a good hotel furnished in colonial style. Stepping out the door, we found ourselves on an 18th-century street peopled with -- depending on the hour -- the boys of the Fife and Drum Corps marching by, a shepherdess driving her flock to pasture or a gaggle of visitors gaping in envy at our special station in life.

And nothing comes close to walking home through the sleeping town that most people see in bustling daylight. It is then that one feels a different sense of the past in the gable shadows and the checkerboard gleam of glazed-brick walls, or hears history echo in the cobbles and in the snap of frost-brittle branches. The dark hours had special meaning for the Rev. W.A.R. Goodwin, the local pastor who 60 years ago inspired the "restoration" of Virginia's colonial capital: "The ghosts of the past haunted the houses and walked the streets at night ... glad and gallant ghosts, {my} companions of the silent hours of reverie."

Like much within the town-sized museum founded and funded by Goodwin's patron, John D. Rockefeller Jr., Colonial Houses don't come cheap (though a family can stay for as little as $55 a head). While many of these houses are booked years in advance right around Christmas, there are still some vacancies during much of December.

(N.B. for late planners: Colonial Williamsburg keeps a waiting list and boasts that in past years everyone on it has been offered lodging -- if not in a guest house then in one of CW's four conventional hotels. Further, hotels and motels in the surrounding town have less expensive rooms. For information, call Colonial Williamsburg at 800-HISTORY or the Hotel and Motel Association, 800-446-9244.)

December nights gleam here. Candles shine in every window. Lanterns mark paths to the Capitol and Governor's Palace, where concerts and historical reenactments take place. Bonfires of split logs laid cabin-style and cressets (iron baskets of burning pine chips) mark the site of a come-one-come-all carol sing in the crisp air.

The Grand Illumination itself is partly inspired by accounts of the colonists' major celebrations such as the coronation of King George III or the arrival of a new royal governor. In colonial times, public occasions were marked by parades, bonfires, militia musters with cannon fire and musketry, fireworks, and free drink for the hoi polloi.

Now on Grand Illumination night the drinks aren't on the house (and the place does get very crowded for several hours). But the Fife and Drum Corps marches on parade, fireworks go off in three locations and, soon after sundown, a candle brightens each window. You see, while a few dozen of the town's 300 antique buildings contain exhibits and more of them house offices, most dwellings are the homes of staffers and their families. On this night someone waits in virtually every room to light its candles on command at the stroke of 5:30. (These candles are electric lest burning tapers revive the scourge of town fires, another antique we actually can do without.)

Within Williamsburg's houses, restaurants, taverns and historic buildings (nay even in the streets) Christmas means food, and this year brings a new emphasis on 18th-century eating. Those who remember history courses as litanies of Great Names and dates, be advised that the focus has shifted. Serious research, in universities and here at CW, now involves social history: the discovery and study of how ordinary people commonly lived.

(While historical authenticity is the watchword, Colonial Williamsburg works no faster than most institutions. Months may pass before everybody gets the word about a discovered historical error and it is corrected. Witness the stocks in which miscreants received public punishment: First reconstructed outside the Gaol, they remained there for years before being moved to their genuine location beside the Courthouse of 1770.)

Earlier this year CW hosted a symposium on colonial "foodways," which brought together culinary experts, social historians and specialists such as bio-archeologists who identify old foodstuffs by analyzing buried pollen, seeds and bones. Their discourse continues this season through specially laid tables in the exhibition buildings, daily tours, slide lectures and demonstrations.

Her voice sweet with Carolina vowels, culinary historian Rosemary Brandau can spit a pig or whip up a confection of sugar, cream, gelatin and liqueur faster than I can spell "syllabub." Mistress of the restored kitchens, she insists that by the 18th century much Anglo-American food must have been delicious. A chicken served to George Washington for dinner in the Governor's Palace might have laid the egg for Lord Dunmore's breakfast that morning. Fruits and vegetables fresh from George Wythe's garden graced his table where Thomas Jefferson read law. And dry-cured hams from Virginia smokehouses were prized in Europe for their special flavor, supposedly the result of the free-range pigs' diet of acorns and snakes.

In the Historic Area, Brandau and her long-aproned colleagues demonstrate dishes from Hannah Glasse's cookery book, which describes an ambitious "coffin pie" of at least five boned birds nested like Russian dolls. The old "receipt" calls for a bushel of flour to make a crust container large enough for a pigeon stuffed in a partridge stuffed in a fowl stuffed in a goose stuffed in a turkey surrounded by rabbits and other game, then baked until done.

These neocolonial cooks make bread in brick ovens and cakes from batter beaten by hand for an hour (since their colonial antecedents were innocent of baking soda). Pies and vegetables cook in lidded pans set on a bed of coals and covered with embers. Joints of meat slow roast for hours on spits turned by clockwork jacks.

The very lack of modern technology made the food tastier, says Brandau. Things were fresh in season and everything was natural, neither frozen to lie in supermarket crates for unmarked time nor hybridized to survive picking machines and distant transport. Alas, her cooks can only show, not serve, because an accurately restored kitchen lacks the sanitary equipment that board of health rules require.

Visitors must settle for the distant second-best of dining in one of three taverns that serve dishes adapted from antique recipes. These have the charm of period furnishings and tableware, service by a staff clad in colonial dress and strolling musicians (whose medleys, sadly, may include Kingston Trio numbers). Despite its inspiration the food tends toward blandness at Christiana Campbell's, Chowning's and King's Arms -- where son Tim had his first Christmas dinner. Nonetheless, eating in one of the taverns is a novel experience.

For gourmet dining, the surrounding area boasts several notable high-dollar restaurants: La Yaca beautifully serves French country cuisine such as roast lamb finished before an open hearth; cozy Taliaferro's Kitchen has a handful of tables in a restored plantation outbuilding; the Trellis is nationally known for its original nouvelle Virginia menu. Lower-browed eateries include Pierce's Pit Barbecue for lunch and Nick's in Yorktown, an undeniably popular place of memorably ornate decor and spectacularly forgettable food.

CW's modern restaurants also offer fine fare. The Williamsburg Inn's formal Regency Room, which has expanded its menu, boasts Christmas entre'es like poached Maine lobster, grilled Norwegian salmon with candied lemon and fennel, tournedos of lamb with zucchini and truffles in port wine sauce, Dover sole souffle', civet of Scottish venison with chestnut pure'e -- all in addition to turkey of course. Every tavern and restaurant is open on Christmas, but reservations are a must whether in the stately Regency, genteel Lodge, the three taverns or informal Cascades Restaurant.

The most relaxed place for Christmas dinner, the Cascades offers a gourmand's delight most mornings: a hunt breakfast buffet with such things as scalloped oysters, baked apples, grits and at least three meats. Christiana Campbell's, specializing in seafood at lunch and dinner, serves fried chicken for breakfast. On Sundays and holidays the Lodge buffet brunch centers around two omelet stoves and a Rube Goldberg machine that plops, cranks and sizzles as it mints hot doughnuts. This alone is almost worth the price of admission.

During the Christmas season, banquet rooms are the scene of all-you-can-eat "feasts" complete with boar's head en parade and between-courses entertainment: the ubiquitous fifers and drummers (of whom Tim and I never tire) and more specially the Williamsburg Madrigal Singers, who offer festive preclassical song.

Dating from 1715, Bruton Parish Church also offers singing apt for the town's time as the choirmaster chooses anthems by Mozart and contemporaries. The church's brass rails and candelabra gleaming in candlelight, Bruton Parish suffers predictably from the excess of success during the holidays: On Christmas Eve it must hold five services to accommodate the crowds and (free) tickets are required. Yet it bears mention that these very musical rites are moving and memorable.

Wherever you lodge, dine or worship, a single ticket opens the doors of all Williamsburg's exhibition buildings: its newest museum, the DeWitt Wallace Decorative Arts Gallery; Carter's Grove plantation on the bank of the James; the Powell House, where character actors play the hospital family that once lived here; and the score of working shops where artisans explain the methods and mores of yore as they replicate 18th-century trades -- printing, bookbinding, spinning, weaving, bronze founding, silversmithing, cabinetry, blacksmithing, wiggery and more.

A new twist for early risers offers amateur photographers hourlong shooting sessions in the Palace, Capitol and other buildings before they open to ordinary visitors at 9. Another recent attraction will be the narrated mini-illuminations of single buildings and precincts on the order of the son et lumie`re at history sites in Europe. In terms of old twists, there are tree trimmings in the hotels and Carter's Grove, rides in carriages and an ox cart for children, draughts of hot cider from street-side vendors and the welcoming charm of the village. Every door is bedecked with wreaths of native greens, flowers, feathers and/or fruits to make sights so intoxicating that during a warm snap the very birds get drunk (from pecking at the fermenting fruit).

To my way of thinking, this is about the next-best place to home during the holidays in these latitudes. (Mind you, I take Christmas very seriously, if not somberly: with a carol on my lips, a nog in my fist and a pile of presents beneath our tree.) Some of it is hokey, like the bauble CW gives each guest, but no worse than the calendar your bank sends around and the tie from Aunt Martha. As benignly busy as you want to make it, Colonial Williamsburg is a place for a Christmas of gentle excitements. Now the editor of the new broadcasting magazine Dial/WETA, Philip Kopper lived in Virginia's restored 18th-century capital while writing "Colonial Williamsburg," which was published last year by Harry N. Abrams Inc.