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America Celebrates

December 22, 1991|PHILLIP STEPHEN SCHULZ | Schulz is a cookbook author. and

"We wish you Health, and good Fires; Victuals,

Drink and good Stomachs, innocent Diversion,

and good Company; honest Trading, and good

success; loving Courtship and good Wives, and

lastly a merry CHRISTMAS and a happy NEW YEAR."

--Virginia Almanack, 1766 Stepping into Colonial Williamsburg is stepping into America's past. Though worthy of a visit any time of year, Christmas in Williamsburg, Va., is sheer magic, a time so treasured by tourists that the limited accommodations are booked almost a year in advance.

And why not? The late December mood is not only traditional, but decidedly festive.

Of course, Williamsburg is far from the only place in America that has its own special way of celebrating the holidays. In traditional New England celebrations, there are still traces of Forefathers' Day, which the Puritans celebrated instead of Christmas. In the Southwestern United States, they still celebrate the Hispanic Las Posadas and in the Northwest, new traditions for New Year's have taken root.

But in Williamsburg, the atmosphere of a former time lives again in the parlors, taverns, shops--even along the bricked walks and paths. The ring of a blacksmith's hammer, the sounds of fife and drum and the steady clatter of carriage horses provide the only soundtrack for this amazing restoration of an 18th-Century American village. The pungent smells of burning log fires mingle with the aromas of country-baked hams and brick-oven breads, perfuming the crisp wintry air.

The season is ushered in on Dec. 15 with the Grand Illumination. Huge bonfires and mulled cider keep the celebrants warm while cannons boom, musket shots reverberate through the night, and the historic area glows in the light of flickering candles placed virtually in every window. Dancers and fiddlers, madrigal singers and Christmas carolers, all add to the calendar of events that include a genuine 18th-Century ball in full costume, myriad concerts, recitals, exhibitions, lectures, fireworks and a host of colonial games.

Early Virginia was known for its "groaning boards" laden with good food and strong drink. Local delicacies--Virginia ham, venison, wild fowl, oysters, crabs and fish of all kinds--are still in abundant supply at the various taverns around town, teamed with the customary mincemeat and pecan pies, plum puddings, fruitcakes and every conceivable sweetmeat. And the spirits flow freely. Beer, ale, toddies, syllabubs, eggnog and wine cloud the present as the past beckons.

Though New England's Forefathers' Day, with its traditional celebratory foods, now blends in nicely with the Christmas season, it was not always so. In fact, the first New England Christmas was anything but festive.

First, the settlers had just arrived and were still living on shipboard. More to the point, the Puritans did not believe in Christmas, and for years, forced their viewpoint on non-Puritans, or "strangers," as they were labeled.

By 1659, the Puritans had gone so far as to legally decree that "anybody who is found observing, by abstinence from labor, feasting or any other way, any such days as Christmas day, shall pay for every such offense five shillings."

In the Southwest, where the December nights are scented by burning pinon branches, most illuminations and celebrations are fraught with religious meaning. The Hispanic influences are felt everywhere and Las Posadas is, aside from Christmas, a main event.

This holiday, Dec. 16 through Dec. 24, is celebrated with re-enactments of Mary and Joseph's search for shelter. The candle-lit processions are quite moving and beautiful to watch.

Another significant celebration in the region is the Fiesta de Guadalupe. As the legend goes, in December of 1533, an Indian, Juan Diego, saw the Virgin Mother on a hill near Mexico City. She instructed him to have the bishop build a shrine to her on that very site. The bishop refused to believe that Diego had actually seen the Virgin Mother.

Three days later, at the same spot, the Virgin re-appeared. She instructed Juan Diego to pick the roses suddenly growing out of the barren hillside and take them to the bishop as proof. When he got to the bishop, he accidentally dropped the roses on the floor. An image of the Virgin Mary appeared among them. The bishop, needless to say, became a believer and the Lady of Guadalupe eventually gained status as the Patron Saint of not only Mexico City, but of the entire country.

In the United States, one of the best places to witness this celebration is Tortugas, N.M. As evening falls on Dec. 10, drumbeats sound throughout this Indian village, signaling the beginning of the fiesta. Fourteen masked dancers dance the night away while the image of the Virgin Mother is carried to the Casa del Pueblo.

At 7:30 the next morning, pilgrims gather to march the four miles to the top of Tortugas Mountain, 1,000 feet above. Mass is said at 11 a.m. and the faithful receive yucca stalks and blades of sotol root that serve as quiotes (staffs) for the trek back to town.

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