Christmas comes but once a year, and it is exceptionally glorious in Richmond. The capitol of our state holds many treasures, especially during the Holidays. This is a city that is easily accessible and even rush hour is not usually overwhelming. Large parts of the city are walkable and in most instances accessible by taxi, bus and hotel shuttles. Large public parking garages are also available. Skillfully laid out, the original vision of Richmond is viewable from Church Hill, a lovely renovated community to the east of downtown. Church Hill is where you can tour St. John’s Church, the site of Patrick Henry’s speech “Give me liberty or give me death.”
Our capitol shines during many times of the year but during the celebration
of Christmas it becomes a treasure trove of “things to do” and literally glows.
Many years ago after an emergency Christmas Eve trip to Florida from Pennsylvania our return took us through Richmond on Interstate 95. We were uplifted by the glorious vision of many tall buildings outlined in white lights. This “Grand Illumination”, also known as “Love Lights”, is created annually and is accompanied by the lighting of hundreds of white deer and approximately a hundred trees at the James Center at 10th and Cary Street. The James Center has a park-like setting with garden walls for sitting, a meandering path
and a bell tower. During the Christmas season it is usually
filled with wide-eyed adults and children well into the evenings. It is surrounded by the buildings of Bankers’ Row which rise to amazing heights. These buildings are outlined with an uncountable numbers of lights, and their reflection lights up the Christmas sky.
A comfortable stroll east along Cary Street will bring you to Shockoe Slip. This charming area of cobblestone roads is lined with restored tobacco warehouses, many of them converted to upscale restaurants and shops. Shockoe Slip flows gently down to Shockoe Bottom and Tobacco Row. Lofty textured brick buildings are tastefully renovated into restaurants and condominiums which overlook strolling neighborhoods and the James River. An easy walk will take you to The Edgar Allan Poe House and Museum.
The history of this area includes strong ties to the tobacco industry. The warehouses previously housed thriving tobacco businesses. During the time of the Civil War and before, Richmond was a hub of trade with the James River and the supporting canal system providing transportation. Tobacco and crops from the surrounding farms were placed on a cart system and rolled down to the docks to be loaded on ships. In a nearby bank interior courtyard, there are brass rails set in the marble flooring marking the path the carts traveled. This history is clearly evident with a stroll along River Walk which edges the preserved and restored canal. Canal work started in 1785, was half done in 1851 and totally operational in 1877. A brisk walk in the Christmas season helps to justify a hot chocolate at a nearby restaurant. The James River also hosts a Christmas parade of boats during the holidays.
A gentle hike back up Cary Street going west and a turn to the right takes you to the Virginia State Capitol. Situated on a hill it looms high above the city. Designed by Thomas Jefferson in 1788, it is the 2nd oldest state capitol in continuous use in our nation. The first building in the New World in the form
of a Monument Style (Roman Temple Style); it set a trend
across the nation.
The official state tree at the Capitol Building is lit yearly by the Governor, First Lady, Santa and Virginia Military representatives. This is followed by an open house at the Executive Mansion behind the Capitol. The public is invited to tour the Governor’s home in its full holiday regalia.
The Capitol was the site of the filming of the movie Lincoln staring Daniel Day-Lewis in 2012 and was decorated with
large ornate styrofoam columns. Lamp posts and more recent
additions that would have been out of character for the movie were transformed into period pieces. The driveway and access roads were covered with peat moss and large cut cedars (some up to 20 foot tall) were inserted into holders to line the road, much as you would use to decorate a miniature train set. This effectively transformed the area into the White House of Lincoln’s time.
In close proximity to Courthouse Square, a charming park surrounding the Courthouse, are an impressive amount of
historical buildings. The Confederate White House, home to
Jefferson Davis and his family, is situated on the east side. Historic Saint Paul’s Church sits just west of the square. St. Paul’s is well worth a tour with brass plaques marking the pews used by historical figures such as Robert E. Lee. Built in 1895, St. Paul’s
at 101 Franklin Street is home to numerous impressive stained glass windows, some by Tiffany Studios.
Seek out some of the many theatres in this city and be treated to the annual Nutcracker by the Richmond Ballet at the Carpenter Center. These theatres present a great variety, such as Broadway shows, concerts, movies and dinner theatres. They include: The Byrd, Hippodrome, VA Repertory, The Altria (formerly The Landmark), The Firehouse and The Swift Creek Mill Theatre. The Swift Creek Mill Theatre is located in the oldest grist mill in our nation, which was built in the 1630s.
If you think you hear music it may be coming from Hanover Tavern. It is one of only a few surviving colonial taverns in the country. The Tavern is host to Christmas visits from a colonial Santa and Mrs. Claus, a community bake sale, carolers, tree
lighting, and holiday crafts.
Head west from the center of the city and find Monument Avenue with its enormous bronze statues. At any time of the year this is impressive to stroll. Its distinct neighborhoods of grand houses and exquisite decorations at Christmas are well worth walking and viewing in the chilly weather. Competition is evident with one owner recently using a full-sized white Cadillac pulled by reindeer in his display.
West of Richmond along Cary Street (which is one way from west to east) lays the artsy community of Carytown. Distinguished for its colorful shops and unique restaurants, it presents a great shopping opportunity.
Many charming neighborhoods are well worth a driving or walking tour. Drive around the Fan, where Agecroft Hall is located. This 15th century Tudor country manor house was originally built in Lancashire, England. It was rebuilt on the banks of the James River in 1926. Dressed in its holiday décor, it is beautiful and begs you to return to view its gardens in warmer times. Right next door is the Virginia House, a 16th century house originally built in England as well. There you can take a house tour, make a gingerbread house and enjoy a service of tea.
Working your way back east to 101 Franklin Street, you will come upon the Jefferson Hotel, a Richmond institution. Built in 1895 and always lavishly decorated for the Christmas season, it remains a spirit-lifting place to stroll around. Take in the stained glass domed lobby with a large statue of Jefferson. The main entrance is guarded by an impressive bronze alligator, also decorated for Christmas. The legend has it that visitors to the hotel on their return from Florida left alligators in the hotel, finding them too large for the bathtubs. Some took up residence in the pool and others wandered into the lobby. It was the job of the night watchman to extricate them in the morning. Old Pompey, the last of the alligators, died in 1948.
The gingerbread house in the main lobby is impressive with its life-sized proportions. The coupe-de-grass of the Jefferson Hotel is its grand staircase and lower dining areas which are breathtaking at any time of the year but especially at Christmas. Many a wedding has occurred on this staircase and its photo records remain open to the public for perusal in a small museum area just behind the structure.
There is so much more to see. Richmond has a regional Tacky Lights Tour that follows mapped routes with outlandish decorations sure to entertain. Venture beyond the downtown to Maymont, the estate of James and Sallie Dooley, and explore the 100 acres of parkland, magnificent trees and beautiful holiday decorated buildings.
Now this tour would not be complete without a visit to Lewis Ginter Botanical Gardens. Here the Dominion GardenFest of Lights takes place from late November to early January. More than a half-million colorful holiday lights are arranged in a botanical theme in the gardens. There are train exhibits and several dining options as well as a beautifully stocked gift shop. Do not miss the warm greenhouse with its towering Christmas tree skillfully constructed out of colorful blooming plants. Enjoy the large arrays of festive pots of Christmas flowers and a tropical room filled with orchids of every type imaginable. Poke around in the children’s room filled with the gardens of Peter Rabbit.
You would need years to explore everything in this wonderful city. Return again and again. Remember to see the Court End Christmas at the Valentine Richmond History Center and the many musical performances at the churches in the area. You can take a horse-drawn carriage ride and so much more. So just put it on your calendar and make it a yearly tradition to visit Richmond and celebrate a Capitol Christmas.