Virginia's 100 Miles of Christmas

Sparkling like a string of lights on a Yuletide tree, these destinations welcome the season.
Annette Thompson

The Commonwealth greets December warmly. Communities from Richmond to Virginia Beach glow with magic in the annual 100 Miles of Lights celebration. Hundreds of events fill days with surprise and joy like overstuffed stockings on Christmas morning. Holiday parades, teas, historical re-enactments, light shows, decorating workshops, candlelight tours, and unique shopping and caroling events add fun to the season from the capital city to the ocean. Here are some of our favorites.

Shining Season in Richmond
On a clear moonlit evening, Richmond's stars shine brightest at ground level. Half a million lights bloom along paths at Lewis Ginter Botanical Garden. The staff designs the botanical-inspired displays in GardenFest. "We want to create a garden at night," says Tom Brinda, assistant executive director. And it works. In December's cold gloaming, this garden cheerfully blossoms. Pull your coat around you, toss a hat on your head, and go for a winter walk to see the sights.

Spreading lights carpet ground covers, while a shimmering lake reflects a dazzling swan and masses of flowers. The trunks of crepe myrtles glow soft blue, while snowflakes dangle from bare branches. Visitors can look in the Bloemendaal House, where dried plants offer ornament ideas to try at home.

Across town at the Science Museum of Virginia, "Joy From the World" educates visitors with an exploration of cultural and scientific oddities--all celebrating holidays that take place near the winter solstice. Wooden shoes stuffed with carrots and bread for St. Nicholas's horse rest in the Netherlands' display. In a nearby room, a spider swings from a Ukrainian tree to bring good luck. In other museum galleries, you'll find scientific trees such as the Crystal World, where snowflakes and bits of quartz catch the light in holiday spirit.

Christmas in the Colonies
Drive to the east from Richmond along the James River, where stately old mansions mark the passing seasons. Among the boxwood hedges of Berkeley Plantation, visitors glimpse earlier holiday traditions. In this three-story 1726 Georgian home, built by Benjamin Harrison IV (ancestor of two Presidents), guides describe how the family would begin the celebration at midnight on the 24th. During the 12 days of Christmas (until January 5), they'd serve elaborate feasts and hold fancy dances almost every day. You, too, can enjoy a hearty winter feast or a delicate afternoon tea at the plantation's Coach House Tavern.

Colonial Williamsburg also rejoices in the spirit of America's first holidays. Fireworks and musket shots split the crisp air at Grand Illumination on December 8. Candles peek out from each window while the Fifes and Drums beat merry rhythms outside.

The exquisite wreaths and swags adorning doors, windows, and tabletops throughout the Historic Area make your visit worthwhile. Colonial Williamsburg uses more than 5 miles of white pine roping; 1,500 white pine and Fraser fir wreaths; truckloads of holly, boxwood, magnolia, and berries; and bushels of apples, lemons, oranges, pomegranates, pineapples, and kumquats each year.

Farther down the Colonial Parkway at the re-created Jamestown Settlement, historical interpreters scurry about, preserving supplies for winter. In 1608, Christmas was a solemn time here in contrast to England, where many towns designated a Lord of Misrule. Today this "grand captain of all mischief" teases settlers and visitors.

Illuminating Places
Drive-through light shows invite merrymakers to delight in sparkling images of dancing Santa Clauses, marching toy soldiers, and pretty poinsettias. Each show is affordable--generally less than $10 per car.

You'll be dazzled by Newport News' Celebration in Lights spread over a city park. It features a historic Civil War site illustrated in lights. Meanwhile, Norfolk's entry boasts a flowery Gardens of Light tour of the city's Botanical Garden. Virginia Beach's drive-through is the most original. Chick-fil-A Holiday Lights at the Beach traverses the boardwalk with a seaside theme. You'll see jumping dolphins as well as a surfing Santa, all accompanied by rolling waves outside your car window. Our favorite day to go is during the full moon (December 19).

Sights of the Season
Drop into Pantera Glass in Norfolk to meet John Quillen for one-of-a-kind baubles. During December, this glassblower turns from crafting elegant chandeliers to fashioning delicate ornaments. At around $15 each, you'll want to buy several.

Before leaving the region, stop by Coleman Nursery in Portsmouth. There you'll find one of our favorite elves, Floyd Twiford. You'll adore his acres of fresh greenery as well as his bustling holiday shops filled with ornaments, decorations, and treats. But it's his Christmas Wonderland that has continued to charm tens of thousands of visitors every year since 1965. There, dozens of scenes with more than 750 mechanical marionettes in whimsical vignettes delight guests.

"I've always loved Christmas," Floyd says. And when Floyd shares that love, the sparkle grows in each visitor's eyes.

This article is from the December 2002 issue of Southern Living. Because prices, dates, and other specifics are subject to change, please check all information to make sure it's still current before making your travel plans.