Thanksgiving and Christmas in the Commonwealth
Thanksgiving for this year is now well in the rear view mirror for Canadians, but it looms large with Black Friday significance in the United States, kicking off the Thanksgiving holiday weekend on Nov. 23. The American take on Thanksgiving is more of an occasion than ours, significant for its connection to Christmas, for its football feasting, and for its longer historic roots. Some of the longest are in Virginia, which was home to many of North America’s first trail blazing settlers from the old country.
The earliest and toughest years of survival in the New World were marked by a feast of thanks in October 1619 in Virginia. As one of the original 13 colonies of America, Virginia is a fitting choice to experience Thanksgiving from a historic perspective. Tourists can get in the mood for their trip back into time with visits to the heritage village of Jamestown, as well as the Museum of the American Revolution.
More Canadians can consider a visit to Virginia during the fall to experience not only the spirit of Thanksgiving and Christmas, but also the historical sites, rural harvest scenery and Atlantic Ocean coastlines – not to mention over 300 wineries, nearly 300 craft breweries and vibrant small cities like Norfolk and Richmond.
Canada continues to be Virginia’s number one international source market, and it accounted for about 270,000 visitors to the state in 2022. The majority of those came from Québec and Ontario (90%), and they spent about US$120 million on visitations to the state last year. When Canadians come to Virginia they spend multiple nights in the hotels, and the vast majority arrive by car.
In 1607, 104 English men and boys arrived in North America to start a settlement, choosing a sheltered harbour site on the James River (flowing into Chesapeake Bay on the eastern seaboard) that they named Jamestown, after England’s King James I. This became the first permanent English settlement in North America.
Jamestown was the site of much strife during its early years of occupation, when the tiny population was pared away by death due to disease and skirmishes with the local Powatan tribe. Thanksgiving was probably more heartfelt while clinging to the edge of the North American wilderness.
The Jamestown Settlement history re-creation site and the American Revolution Museum have two special days set aside for exploring and demonstrating food preparation techniques by English colonizers and Aboriginal inhabitants in Virginia during the 17th- and 18th-centuries. Foods & Feasts of Colonial Virginia will take place Nov. 24 and 25 at the Jamestown Settlement and American Revolution Museum at Yorktown.
There, Powhatan re-enactors will prepare venison, turkey and other game roasts over an open fire, while stews of corn, beans and squash simmer in clay pots. At James Fort, visitors can see how English colonists baked bread and did open-hearth cooking of pudding, pies and pottage, based on historical recipes of the late 16th and early 17th centuries.
At the American Revolution Museum at Yorktown, visitors will see how soldiers earned their rations and sustained themselves on stews, pies and breads. And at the Revolution-era Farm, a variety of dishes based on the produce and proteins fresh from the fields will be prepared using 18th-century open-hearth cooking techniques and recipes.
Christmas in Virginia retains some old world aspects that will appeal to those who love seasonal traditions. Those endearing qualities can be experienced at a selection of Christmas markets and holiday celebration sites around the state, as below:
Norfolk – USS Wisconsin
It may be a bit contradictory, but a Christmas celebration on a battleship is still impressive. That’s what happens on the USS Wisconsin for “Winterfest on the Wisconsin,” which runs until Jan. 1 in Norfolk. For about C$18, less for kids, ticketed visitors can stroll the massive ship under thousands of Christmas lights, including glowing tunnels, twinkling foot bridges and inventive light displays. They can then experience a slice of the navy life by exploring the ship’s interior structures.
On the waterfront that is home to America’s largest naval fleet – Naval Station Norfolk – the Winterfest Christmas displays on the Wisconsin somehow make sense.
Richmond – The Bizarre Bazaar
The Bizarre Bazaar started in 1975 as a quality Christmas retail gift show providing a marketplace for cottage industries, talented crafts persons, new shops, exciting new gift lines and recognized artists of varied media. During the holiday season, the Bizarre Bazaar provides customers with a unique holiday marketplace, and it will be held on the first weekend of December.
There will be over 475 exhibitors filling four contiguous exhibition buildings at the Richmond Raceway Complex. A boutiques section will be housed in the first building, artists and crafters in the second building, a mixture of new and returning exhibitors in the third building and “New Resources” featuring new exhibitors in the fourth building. The Raceway Complex is a very popular venue due to its close proximity to interstate highways, and its acres of convenient free parking.
Virginia Beach – Cavalier Hotel
A wonderful taste of Christmas life in Virginia Beach can be found at the historic Cavalier Hotel & Beach Club, a rambling heritage hotel property that welcomes visitors with broad steps leading to a spacious atrium trimmed with Christmas hollies and lights, with ceilings high enough to encompass a massive hearth. This hotel still brims with the elegance and hospitality of a bygone era.
That can be experienced in the Hunt Room, a festive retreat that retains an essence of east coast traditions within its wooden walls. A friendly, elegant crowd sips drinks in this bar that echoes with history — both it and the Cavalier itself were born in the Big Band era (opened in 1927), hosting stays by ten US presidents, making the hotel a Virginia Beach icon.
Bayport Credit Union Holiday Lights At The Beach
Of the many aspects of winter across the continent, some of the most dramatic are at the oceanfront beaches of Virginia Beach. There, it is commonplace to encounter howling winds that blow ashore from the Atlantic Ocean. Hold onto your hat and experience winter on the Atlantic coast from the wide sandy beach, facing the cold, choppy waters.
The beach boardwalk is the location of the Bayport Credit Union Holiday Lights At The Beach, which runs until Dec. 31 daily. It is a long, driveable tunnel of programmed Christmas light displays, complete with a soundtrack tuned to a radio frequency. Expect to see jumping fish, musical crabs, a surfing Santa and a 15-metre dancing-light Christmas tree. Guests must purchase tickets in advance for a specific day and time, and entries are timed to minimize wait times. beacheventsvb.com.
Williamsburg – Busch Gardens
The holidays are shining bright at Busch Gardens Christmas Town through Jan. 7, as the theme park is once again transformed by over ten million twinkling lights – one of the largest light displays in North America. Visitors will encounter Santa’s Workshop and the Christmas Town Express, plus shows including “Wisemen,” “T’was That Night” and “Gloria!” There are over 25 rides and coasters, including the new DarKoaster. Festive treats, holiday shopping and special photo ops complete the holiday celebrations at Busch Gardens in Virginia.