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LEAVE YOUR plastic Santas at home.
And lose that tangle of multicolored lights.

When Colonial Williamsburg in Virginia gets decked out for Christmas, it's in full 18th century regalia. The buildings wear garlands of green embellished with pineapples, lotus pods, pine cones, holly berries, balsam branches, red apples and innumerable other fruits and decorations. But no Santas. And no lights.

From the apothecary to Christiana Campbell's Tavern, and all the private homes in between, Christmas at Williamsburg is about as sincere a holiday celebration as you will find, unsullied by 20th century -- or even 19th century -- commercialization.

There are no Muzak versions of "Jingle Bell Rock" here. No Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer. There is no sign of that 19th century innovation, the Christmas tree. And there is no nostalgia for the days of Currier and Ives. In the colonial period depicted here, the 18th century, Currier and Ives haven't been born.

But there is enough Christmas spirit to permeate the hard-crusted soul of even the most dour Scrooge. (Of course, Scrooge hasn't been created yet, either.)

In the Benjamin Powell House, frozen in the year 1770, holly trimmings surround picture frames and decorate the parlor mantel.

Drop by for a visit, and you will likely find Annabell Powell, her sister, Nancy, and neighbors like tavern keeper Mrs. Vobe and jailer's wife Mrs. Westmore embroiled in the popular 18th century game of goose.

Two visitors in our group are impelled to join in and roll the dice while the rest of us ponder a riddle offered by Annabell: "Round as a biscuit, busy as a bee, as pretty as you shall ever see."

The lucky tourist who responds with the correct answer -- a pocket watch -- is told he must offer his own riddle, or lead all in song. Unable to accomplish either, he is rescued by the Powell ladies and their neighbors, who break into a rousing rendition of "God Rest Ye Merry, Gentlemen."

If you get down to basics, Colonial Williamsburg folks celebrate Christmas in the same way as many 1990 residents do: with music, social gatherings and feasting, feasting, feasting. Just without the 20th century frills.

Palate-teasing aromas suffuse the kitchens of Colonial Williamsburg much of the year but especially in December. In the Wythe House kitchen, Danielle Dixon, wearing a smock and cotton dress, stirs a sweet potato pudding while a duck roasts on a spit.

A stroll into the Wythe House dining room reveals a table set for a winter epicurian repast: roast duck, Yorkshire Christmas pie, scalloped oysters among several dishes and at each seat, a roll tucked inside a linen napkin.

Adorning the Christmas dinner table across the Palace Green at the Peyton-Randolph House is an enticing desert called a hedgehog. Shaped like the spiny little mammal for which it's named, its body of almond paste is stuck with slivered blanched almonds to look like bristles; two currants resemble eyes.

For a seasonal slant on colonial cuisine, we take the special Winter Dining Tour. Guide Bernice Fischer leads us into these and other homes where dinner tables are set to the fullest.

SURVEYING a boiled turkey on the Peyton Randolph House table, Ms. Fischer says: "People then took pride in having their Christmas turkey come out white, so they put white oyster sauce on top. Anyone could make a brown turkey."

What would a Virginia dinner table be without a renowned Virginia ham? There's one on the table at the Peyton Randolph House, and we also see one in the making in a special day-long presentation called "From Hog to Ham."

An unlucky hog, nicknamed Percival by visiting children, is butchered, salted and cured before our eyes. In full view of Percival's detached head, staff member Ann Schone rubs saltpeter, salt and sugar onto his carcass.

"The saltpeter gives the ham its red color and, with the salt, preserves the meat. And the brown sugar cuts the toughness and adds flavor," she says, hands speckled with seasonings.

For a special treat, the hog's blood was saved and made into black pudding, where it was mixed with boiled rice or oatmeal, lard, salt, pepper and sundry herbs.

Unfortunately (or thankfully, in the case of the black pudding), modern health laws prevent the offering of samples to guests. To get a taste of the 18th century, head to any of Colonial Williamsburg's four taverns.

Or, better yet, for a melange of entertainment and gluttony offered only at Christmas, reserve a seat at the early American pig-out known as the groaning board. The name stems from the fact that the table supposedly groans from the weight of all the food.

Dip your sippets (bread sticks) into Virginia peanut soup and chow down on salmagundi, sort of an 18th century chef's salad, while the Williamsburg Madrigal Singers belt out "Deck the Halls" and "We Wish You a Merry Christmas."

Savor Southern fried chicken as host Cliff Williams renders "A Coventry Carol" on his crooked-neck baroque lute and quips, "But it's not a b-roke lute. The neck is meant to be bent."

The main course, roast top sirloin of beef, is presented by waiters marching in step behind a fife and drum band. It prompts Williams to tell of the king who knighted his loin of meat, "Sir-Loin," which causes a chorus of groans from the assembled diners.

"That's another reason why this feast is called the groaning board," smiles Williams.

With or without puns, the atmosphere is convivial, and we chat easily with the other 20th century visitors at our table, wondering aloud just what is figgy pudding.

We also learn a gritty reality of colonial era dining. When my neighbor asks a waitress for a steak knife to replace a dull one, he is told: "This is only kind we have. If you have trouble, I'll try to find a sharper one. Back then they ate with their hands."

Ready to prove that we in the 20th century are at least as adept with our feet, if not our hands, as our colonial counterparts, a few diners join the Williamsburg Dancers on stage in a Virginia Reel. Under capable guidance, the amateurs miss a step or two but overall handle themselves fairly well.

Music is heard nightly, and you can join in here, too. Carol sings are held each evening in different historic locations -- at the Raleigh Tavern one night, at the Capitol or Market Square the next, at a third site after that.

Or tag along on a nightly lantern tour (spell it "lanthorn" and you'll pass as a colonial resident), where a guide leads a group of visitors by lantern light through the streets and into the homes.

Then there is the daily Christmas Decorations tour, affording a look at the care and symbolism of those ornaments of garlands and pineapples that you see on so many front doors.

YOU'LL also hear the truth. The front door decorations aren't historically accurate and are created solely for tourists' benefit. But all are made from materials available to 18th century Williamsburg residents, who really did deck the interior halls of their homes with garlands and greens. Honest.

Of course, work doesn't stop during our modern Christmas season, and it doesn't stop in Colonial Williamsburg either. The shops and houses on and around Duke of Gloucester Street are open on a rotating basis, with nearly all accepting visitors daily.

Learn why flipping your wig was a literal thing in the 18th century by meeting the village wigmaker, or examine the fashionable hats and gloves on which the mop-hatted milliner is applying finishing touches.

Then see what's cooking at the Raleigh Bake Shop. You probably will exit nibbling on a slice of Queen's cake (a lemon pound cake with currants and spices) or a Shrewsbury cookie (a citrus flavored sugar cookie).

Actually, you do have one chance to see a modern old-fashioned Christmas. Take your car to Carter's Grove, an 18th century James River plantation, part of the Colonial Williamsburg Foundation but eight miles from the historic colonial district.

The Carter's Grove sitting room is dominated by an 8-foot-high cedar Christmas tree with Tinkertoys and an electric train underneath, certain to jog the memories of many visitors who can recall similar scenes from their own childhoods.

The time here is not colonial America but the 1930s, when owner Archibald McCrea and his wife began restoration of the plantation. The recorded carols by Bing Crosby will only reinforce the time frame.

Don't be surprised to hear Der Bingle crooning over the classic 1930s radio in Carter's Grove, "God Rest Ye Merry, Gentlemen," the same carol the Powell ladies sing in their 1770 parlor.

It has been said the classics survive through the ages. A visitor to Christmas at Colonial Williamsburg can only agree.

To receive a schedule of Christmas events and a registration form, write to: Christmas Events Reservations Office, P.O. Box B, Williamsburg, Va. 23187, or call (804) 220-7738.

For information about the general area, call the Williamsburg Convention and Visitors Bureau, (804) 253-0192.


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