Kids' Holiday Programs

kid's Christmas

Special programs for kids let young visitors experience an 18th-century child’s life. Kristen Spivey describes Kids’ Holiday Weekends in Colonial Williamsburg’s Historic Area.


Lloyd Dobyns: Hi! Welcome to Colonial Williamsburg: Past & Present on This is “Behind the Scenes” where you meet the people who work here. That’s my job. I’m Lloyd Dobyns, and mostly I ask questions. This time, I’m asking Kristen Spivey, and in Colonial Williamsburg, she’s a Manager of Public History Development. Particularly in children’s programming, I guess?

Kristen Spivey:  That’s correct.

Lloyd:  What have you got for children?

Kristen:  What have we got?

Lloyd:  Yes.

Kristen:  We have got so many things. Williamsburg is a wonderful place for children, and particularly at Christmastime. Even though Christmas in the 18th century was not the same as it is today, the children were still excited. And we want them to continue to be excited in the 21st century about what was happening in the 18th century. So we have developed kids’ holiday weekends.

There are three weekends in December that we specifically schedule programming, in various venues, for kids and their families. And the weekends this year are -- December 9 and 10, 16 and 17, and 30 and 31. We have programming throughout the day, and throughout the city. There’s so much, in fact, that people really will be tempted – and we hope will succumb – to staying over the full weekend.

Lloyd:   Give me an example.

Kristen:    Well, let’s start first thing in the morning. A warm way to start the day, it’s a very short program done in two different places – on Saturday mornings it’s done in the East Stable Yard of the Governor’s Palace – and our wheelwrights light a fire using flint and steel. And people just love to see those sparks fly. It starts the fire up, and it is indeed a way to start the day warm. In fact, the program started because the wheelwrights have always graciously prepared a fire for the interpreter at the gate, to keep them warm. So not only is it a program, but it’s the way one part of the foundation – the trades department – helps out another part of the foundation – the orientation interpreters --who man our gates and buildings.
Lloyd: Who otherwise would be standing out there as cold as they could be.

Kristen: Exactly, yes. And then, we also offer the program again on Sunday mornings, and in that case, it goes to the Magazine, and essentially does the same thing. But throughout the day, you might even find them putting a pot or something on that fire, to show what a soldier had to put up with out in the field.

Lloyd:  If you’ve got a pot, then you’ve got some food, and it couldn’t be but so bad.

Kristen: Right, exactly. One hopes that it was sufficient, although we do know historically that many times it wasn’t.

Lloyd:  Ah, well. On the other hand, it wasn’t too terribly bad. From what I’ve read, I obviously was not there then, despite my age. Give me another…

Kristen: Well, let’s move on through the day a little bit, and go to the other end of town. We have the Powell house, and we have dancing at the Powell house in preparation for a wedding. So we are combining the skills of several different interpreters in this case. The dancing mistress, Marcy Wright, takes her volunteer dancers down to the Powell house, and has participatory dancing. Not only do her kids become involved, but also the volunteer children at the Powell, and our guests. They all join together.

Lloyd:  Historical precedent includes children dancing?

Kristen:  Absolutely. Children learned from a young age to dance. And it’s not that they would have been invited to the balls, but you have to start young in order to learn well. So a girl, for instance, might attend her first ball at the age of 15 or 16. Same for a boy. But before that, you don’t go to a ball to learn to dance, you go to a ball to show off your dancing. Therefore, you need to know it before you get there.

Lloyd:   Big, big difference in attitude. OK, when did this girl start to learn?
Kristen:  She would probably have been about 9. Maybe 9 or 10. Now, that doesn’t mean that she wouldn’t have seen it before that, because families were large, and older siblings might well have been learning before then. So she was allowed to watch before then, and maybe picked up some of the rudiments at that point. But the beginning actually started much earlier than that, at 5 or 6. They might learn the simple art of a courtesy, what we think of as a curtsy today. And the young boys were learning to bow, as soon as they were breeched at the age of 5 or 6.

Lloyd:   People see balls, and they never think about what was involved in getting there.

Kristen:     Oh, yes.

Lloyd:   Years and years of study and practice.

Kristen:    You wouldn’t dare step on to a dance floor to do the minuet, for example – and we say, “the minuet” in fact, there were a whole variety of minuets – and they were a performance, because they were done by one or two couples at a time, and everyone else in attendance stood around and watched. And it was a matter of hoping your partner knows the dance, and making sure you’re both following the same signals.

Lloyd:   That would be rather intimidating, at least 18 other people standing around, staring at you.

Kristen:    Absolutely.

Lloyd:     And noticing every mistake you made.

Kristen:  Quite so.

Lloyd:   OK, let’s go back to the kids, which I got away from, because I got interested in the dance. Take me through the day. They’re dancing now at the Powell house.

Kristen:  Yes. But you know, actually, there’s work that’s done during the holiday season as well, and we can’t forget that, because there were many things done in preparation for the coming winter.

One of those things is a program that is only offered one day during December. But on December 9, we have our “Hog to Ham” program. And my subtitle for this is, “Everything But the Squeal,” because it truly does go through the entire process of preparing hogs for food. We start – we do not slaughter in front of guests, but we do butcher – the entire process, cutting up the meats, the hams, rendering the lard, making the sausages.

I have to tell you, one of the advantages of being a manager is, that if I arrive at the right time, I might actually get a taste. That’s not something we can offer our guests, however, because the process that we go through, well, quite honestly, will probably turn many people’s stomachs, but, even though all of our cooks are certified by the board of health, they have to have a food handler’s license, the food is not prepared under what one would think of as sanitary conditions.

Lloyd:    Modern sanitary conditions. You’re doing 18th century hog preparation.

Kristen:   Exactly.

Lloyd:    Although, somebody famous once said, if you care about sausage and law, you should not watch either one being made.

Kristen: I think that is entirely correct. Yes.

Lloyd: I don’t think I’d like that.

Kristen: Some people don’t, but we did find that many, many children are extremely interested in this. They love the idea of how this stuff gets made. And so many of them, today, my goodness, they don’t know where peas come from. They don’t know that there’s a pod and you break it open, and, “Look, they’re all in a row! Peas in a pod, so that’s what that means.”

Lloyd: I was thinking: Children love anything that’s messy. If it’s messy, it’s for them. So if you wanted a Christmas program for children, butchering hogs sounds like a perfectly valid Christmas program.

Kristen: Yes, we finally convinced ourselves of that, because although the program has been done for many, many years, it’s never been thought of as a children’s program. But, when we discovered how many children were interested, we decided that we might as well give in, and go with what they liked. And that’s something we’ve done. We’ve learned over the years from the kids themselves.

And our guests and our volunteers, because the children that we have who work here as volunteers have helped to develop programming. We have about three girls, I believe, who currently work as volunteers in the 18th-century kitchens. And there is nothing more exciting for children today than to see children of the past, in costume, in a place that looks completely authentic, doing something completely authentic. And in fact, last year, I believe they combined a few things on this day, and so the girls working the kitchens were actually in charge of preparing a dish. It was theirs from beginning to end. They didn’t do the butchering, but they did prepare a dish from beginning to end. And it tasted very good.

Lloyd: As a manager, you got a taste?

Kristen:  I did. I felt very fortunate.

Lloyd:  What else did children have a hand in developing that other children like?

Kristen:  Well, our children are very adept at all of the 18th-century games. And they have, themselves, found out some games, ones that we might not have thought of. Research was done, but then we sort of threw them aside. So, the kids have gotten very good at developing games, and sometimes, it’s nothing more than, “What do you do with a stick.”

Certainly a slave child, in the 18th century would not have had toys, as such. But our kids have been able to take a stick and split it, put another stick through it, wrap a piece of vine around it and you’ve got a doll. You make, like, a cross shape, but you put a vine around it and you’ve got a doll. Same with a corn shuck, and corn shuck dolls, which we know about, and we know were done. But it’s not the kind of thing that exists today, because they’re very fragile, and they don’t last. But we do know that such things were done.

But we don’t let the kids get away with just playing around, of course. We do have, at the same site where we have the “hog to ham,” the next two Saturdays that we offer this, the 16 and the 30, we have the Christmas box, and this is not a physical box, but there was a custom at the time of giving a tip for services rendered throughout the year. And we still do it today, you might give a tip to your postman, or to somebody who comes in to clean the house: at Christmas you might give them something in an envelope sitting on the table waiting for them.

In the 18th century, this was the Christmas box, and it was offered always from superior to inferior. So, from parent to child, from master to slave, from master to apprentice, but it was always for work that was performed. So if children had learned their lessons well, they might have received something. It’s not the gift-giving that we have today, where it’s reciprocal -- one person gives, and the other person gives them something back. But the slave was the one who might receive money, they might receive extra food, perhaps a piece of clothing. But something that they don’t have all year long. And it was certainly something they looked forward to.

It’s funny though, because, many times, of course, someone might not see somebody at Christmas, so we find references to people giving their Christmas box as late as March. So, when some people who visit relatives, they might be with one part of the family during Thanksgiving, and another part at Christmas, and then they get together for Easter, you might find somebody literally giving their Christmas box at early Easter.

Lloyd: Incidentally, if you’re listening, and you want to check this out so you can see the schedule, it will be on the website This whole December thing is there, and you can get it.

That’s Colonial Williamsburg: Past & Present this time. Check often. We’ll post more for you to download and hear.


  1. I am wondering what children drank during activities such as weddings. Know that much alcohol was consumed, what about the kids. Know they did not drink water. Thank you. Love your site.

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