Richmond’s Grand Illumination

By Bailey Andress

Approaching the James Center. 

After waiting 15 minutes in crawling downtown traffic, Laura Fairlamb (‘19), Isabella Vita (‘19), and I gave up on driving to the event and chose to follow the dense crowds down the Cary Street sidewalk. To say the street was busy would be a massive understatement. Excited children begged their parents for glow-in-the-dark toy swords, necklaces, and glasses on street corners as we ventured closer to the event. The vendors just outside of the venue were surrounded by lines sprawling towards the SunTrust building and Omni Hotel from the street. As we rushed past the concessions and toward the crowd, a delightful aroma, with hints of Amish donuts, corn dogs, and funnel cake, explained the seemingly endless lines. It was only the first night of December, but holiday cheer was in full swing at the Richmond Grand Illumination, hosted by the James Center for the 33rd consecutive year.

At approximately 5:50 pm, we entered the James Center. A massive Christmas tree served as the focal point of the scene, with a large stage complex beneath. Festively-dressed patrons inched towards the stage as Santa, the Snow Queen, Jack Frost, WRIC8, and 103.7 Play and Friends introduced the tradition before starting a countdown. The Snow Queen and Jack Frost (played by Melissa Chase and Jack Lauterback, respectively) led the countdown from 10, and the crowd grew louder as the illumination approached.

Before the Countdown.

As the countdown finished, hundreds of lights became visible on the Christmas tree. The downtown skyline appeared to come to life as the strands of lights along the corners of buildings were illuminated at once. The reindeer in front of the James Center lit up, and several children sprinted towards the glowing white figures. The chilly but clear air made viewing the scene all the more spectacular, and cheerful Christmas music played as crews set up the stages for performances.

The RVA skyline comes to life.

SPARC spreads holiday cheer.

The 2017 Grand Illumination featured a wide variety of performances, with opportunities for all tastes and ages. The featured guest was Good Shot Judy, a lively Williamsburg jazz band that played both classic and pop holiday hits with a touch of swing. Additionally, students from the School of the Performing Arts in the Richmond Community (SPARC) performed elaborate dance routines while singing. Their performances of “Run Run Rudolph” and “Hot Chocolate” were especially successful at spreading holiday hype, as some audience members began to dance along. Other performances included The James River Brass, Flute Forte, The American Youth Harp Ensemble, The VCU Trombone Choir & Friends, members of the Nutcracker cast, and Silly Bus. This wide variety of acts provided an opportunity for all audience members to enjoy the free event.

Festive penguins in the Omni.

The children’s area featured Silly Bus, a rambunctious musical group, whereas a section of the Omni Hotel contained a more relaxing performance by the harp ensemble. In addition to the lights and music, the decorations throughout the James Center gave the event a certain holiday charm. Exhibits in the Omni contained small scenes of penguins fishing in the hotel fountain and large nutcrackers near the entrances and exits.

The Richmond Grand Illumination is more than a foodie paradise and a night of holiday cheer. For countless Richmond families, the Grand Illumination has become somewhat of a tradition. Fairlamb (‘19) explained her family’s tradition of “going to see the lights at the James Center every year since [she] was very young.” This year was her first time experiencing the Grand Illumination, as her family has not attended the event in past years due to the extensive crowds. Although the James Center was crowded, Fairlamb (‘19) expressed that the electric “holiday atmosphere” downtown makes her wish to “go back for the Illumination and then revisit with [her] family for tradition’s sake.”

Also a newcomer to the Grand Illumination environment, Isabella Vita (‘19) expressed her excitement after leaving the James Center, reminiscing on the “countdown and the different performers.” In particular, she enjoyed the SPARC rendition of “Hot Chocolate,” and can be found practicing the choreography in the Commons during Clubs period.

All photos by Bailey Andress.

About the author

Bailey Andress is a junior at Collegiate.