Celebrate a classic Christmas in the Old Dominion, where the enchantment of bygone days can be felt at every turn.
By Lisa Frederick
Photography by John O’Hagan
Like virtually all of the Commonwealth of Virginia, Richmond is so deeply entwined with our nation’s history that it’s impossible to cleave the two apart. From statue-lined Monument Avenue to the Capitol Building designed by Thomas Jefferson, the past is palpable here, as constant a presence as the winding James River. Yet, under the traditional trappings beats a youthful heart with a bold, savvy spirit backed by a very Southern air of warmth and welcome.
“Richmond is unique—it has distinct neighborhoods with lots of character and culture and charm,” says Virginia First Lady Dorothy McAuliffe. “There’s a wonderful sense of community.” As an active family with two teenagers and a pair of dogs (plus three more grown children), Dorothy and her husband, Governor Terry McAuliffe, have embraced the chance to explore these enclaves, often hopping on their bicycles to pedal through town. Among their favorites are the picturesque 19th-century Fan District, so named because of the way the streets fan out, and the adjacent Museum District, home to the Virginia Museum of Fine Arts and the Virginia Historical Society.
The storybook feel of the city at Christmastime truly shines at the Virginia Executive Mansion, the oldest continually occupied governor’s mansion in the country. During the holidays, the McAuliffes open the doors for events such as choral performances by schoolchildren and a Hanukkah celebration.
“We’ve made it a goal to have as many different and diverse groups as we can while we’re here,” Dorothy says. “Our calendar is full, but that’s the way we like it.” Last year the couple invited every town and county in the Commonwealth to send an ornament for the main tree in the ballroom, and the request yielded more than 200 unique creations that have become a treasured part of the décor. “It’s a fun mix,” Dorothy says. “Visitors have heard about the ornament sent from their community, and they look for it on the tree.”Beyond the mansion’s doors, Richmond’s gracious architecture and old-fashioned undercurrent enhance the magic of the festive season. In the Carytown shopping enclave, horse-drawn carriages glide along streets lined with boutiques such as Old World Accents, which brims with nutcrackers, Santa figurines, and other delights. Warm up with eclectic Virginia-style fare at The Roosevelt, housed in a turn-of-the-century building in the venerable Church Hill neighborhood, or locally sourced comfort food at Pasture, one of the McAuliffes’ favorite places to dine.
Illustrious old homes enrobed in their holiday best abound throughout the Richmond area, from the colonial-era Shirley Plantation to Patrick Henry’s Scotchtown. And when dusk descends, thousands of lights transform the spectacular Lewis Ginter Botanical Garden into a twinkling wonderland.
As the winter moon rises over the riverbanks, drift off amid visions of sugarplums at the luxurious Jefferson Hotel, a local landmark since 1895. With beribboned scallops of greenery, oceans of poinsettias, and a lavish tree that presides over the soaring lobby, it puts a fitting flourish on a day well spent in this most resplendent of Southern cities.
Indulge in a holiday horse-drawn carriage ride through the Carytown shopping district, home to some of Richmond’s finest retail venues. Consignment boutique Clementine carries a thoughtfully curated selection of clothing from top-tier brands such as Tory Burch and Nanette Lepore. Bask in the joyful air of all things Christmas all year round at Old World Accents. Crème de la Crème specializes in unique local and international housewares and gifts, from textiles and pottery to artwork and accents.
Located in the opulent Jefferson Hotel, Lemaire puts a sophisticated spin on Southern classics, taking inspiration from native ingredients such as Chesapeake Bay oysters and Virginia peanuts. The Roosevelt hits the sweet spot between rustic and refined, from country-style pâté to a Southern take on poutine. Offering favorites such as Bourbon Barrel-Smoked Pork Belly paired with kimchi and bok choy, the menu at Heritage carries an enticing hint of Asian influence. Stop in at Sub Rosa for delectable pastries, artisan breads, and other treats.
The Richmond area is rich in historic dwellings, and among the grandest is Maymont, an 1890s mansion-turned-museum. Old-fashioned trimmings at Christmastime befit its Gilded Age past. Shirley Plantation, Virginia’s first plantation home, was founded in the 17th century and is still owned by descendants of the original family. Walk in the footsteps of Patrick Henry at Scotchtown, where the great patriot and first Virginia governor conceived his seminal “Liberty or Death” speech. The Tudor-era Agecroft Hall was brought over from England in the 1920s to begin a new life as the home of a wealthy Virginia businessman. As night falls, enjoy the dazzling spectacle at Lewis Ginter Botanical Garden, where the Dominion GardenFest of Lights is a beloved local tradition.