After 400 years, Virginia has one of the richest histories of any state in the nation. Along with that history comes, of course, many special traditions and cultural idiosyncrasies that make us…well, “Virginians.” Of course, over time as cultures have shifted and changed, America in general has become more homogenous. And as people have become more mobile, many other states and cultures have brought their own identities and cultures to Virginia. But there are still some special things, events, seasons and celebrations that make me feel especially happy to call Virginia my home state.
1. Apple Picking in the Fall
Winchester is called the “Apple Capital of the World” but did you know that apples, other than the crabapple, are not native to North America? Thanks to settlers in Jamestown, who brought seeds and cuttings with them, we now have dozens of apple varieties, not just in Virginia, but across the country. And apples still hold a special place for us here. With so many available orchards Central Virginia, the Shenandoah Valley and the Blue Ridge Highlands, apple picking is a Virginia tradition for many. When apples season hits its peak, some orchards in Virginia have lines of cars waiting to get in for pick-your-own apples, apple donuts, fresh apple cider and a day outside in the beautiful Virginia fall.
2. Virginia Ham
Smithfield Ham – the ham so good it can only come from Smithfield. It might sound like a 1950s commercial, but it’s actually true. When colonists introduced pigs to Virginia in the 1600s, the Native Americans once again helped out by teaching them to salt-cure meat. Virginians got good at it. Very, very good. By the turn of the 19th century, the Luters of Smithfield nailed it and the Smithfield Ham was born – so to speak. In 1926, the Virginia General Assembly passed a law that only hams made from peanut-fed pigs and cured within the Smithfield town limits could be called “Smithfield Ham.” The rest of the hams out there were merely country hams – but there’s no shame in that. Today, country ham, Smithfield and otherwise, is common on the Virginia menu, popping up at holidays like Easter and Christmas, in biscuits and fried up with traditional “red-eye” gravy on the top.
3. Military Remembrance
From monuments to roadside markers to Revolutionary War reenactments, Virginia has a long tradition of honoring soldiers. In fact, with 27 military bases in the state, plus countless other training facilities, men and women in uniform have made up much of the fabric of our society for generations. I’ve been a lot of places, Virginia stands out with year-round parades, ceremonies and special services to honor military service – and that’s one tradition I am quite proud of.
4. Oysters…roasted, baked or raw.
Oysters are said to have been part of the Virginia diet since the days of Captain John Smith. Legend goes that newly arrived colonists came upon some Native Americans roasting oysters on the beach, startled them off, them promptly helped themselves. Whether that’s really how it all went down, oysters soon became a favorite for all Virginians Today we are known as the Oyster Capital of the East, with 7 oyster regions, oyster-themed festivals and events and the world’s only Oyster Museum on Chincoteague Island. A favorite summer tradition for many Virginians is the Oyster Roast (or “Bake”) – fire-roasted oyster, often served with clams, crabs, corn and potatoes. Another common oyster tradition is Oyster Stew to ring in the New Year.
5. Chincoteague Pony Swim
For nearly a century, tens of thousands of visitors flock to Chincoteague and Assateague Islands off of Virginia’s Eastern Shore to watch the wild ponies swim from one island to the other. The tradition of “pony penning” began as early as the 1700s as a way for owners to separate herds. By the 1800’s, festivals were held for the annual event. In 1925, after series of fires on Chincoteague Island, the town allowed the Chincoteague Volunteer Fire Company to host a pony auction to raise money for new equipment. Since then, the annual “Pony Swim” auction and festival has become a way to raise money for the fire department and is a favorite tradition for Virginians and visitors alike.
6. Christmas: an Olde English tradition (with a little German thrown in for good measure)
No, Christmas celebrations are not unique to Virginia by any means. But, in the beginning, Virginia was unique in how she celebrated. Early visitors to Virginia in the 17th and 18th centuries reported that Virginians celebrated the Christmas holidays with special zeal and many English customs. Virginians feasted, danced and had festivities for weeks, this at a time when many Puritanical settlers in other colonies didn’t celebrate the holiday. In fact, one of the first Christmas trees in America was thanks to William and Mary’s Professor Charles Minnegerode, a German immigrant who introduced the tradition of decorating an evergreen inside the home in 1842. Today, we still celebrate the season right and Christmas lights, festivals and traditional celebrations can be found in every corner of the state.
And seriously, when it comes to Christmas lights? Don’t even mess with Virginia.
7. Crabs…Chesapeake Blues
If you grew up anywhere near the Chesapeake Bay or the Potomac River, chances are you’ve known how to crack and pick a crab from the time you could walk. And if you’ve ever sailed the inlets of the Potomac or Chesapeake, you know how to weave in and out of the “crab pots” that decorate the water as far as the eye can see. Like the oyster roast, crabs are part of the summer’s traditions for many Virginians. And trust me, these crabs are worthy of their own party…a cold beer, a bushel of steamed crabs and a bib…now that’s a good day.
8. Historic Garden Week
Perhaps it is the English influence of our earliest settlers or maybe it’s just that we have some of the most beautiful springs in the world, but Virginia is known for stunning gardens. For more than 80 years, Virginians have celebrated the spring season with Garden Week, also known as “America’s Largest Open House.” More than 250 homes, gardens and historic sites throughout the state are opened to the public who, for a nominal fee, can explore some of the nation’s most beautiful gardens, homes and flower arrangements. The event is hosted by the Garden Club of Virginia.
9. Music from the Mountains to the Coast
From the Appalachian Mountains to the Virginia coastline, Virginia has a long history of traditional music including bluegrass, folk, country, blues and jazz. We’ve been responsible for past legends like the Carter Family, Patsy Cline, the Statler Brothers, Ella Fitzgerald and Peal Bailey, as well as more modern artists like Pharrell Williams, Jason Mraz and Missy Elliot. With diverse backgrounds from Southwest Virginia all the way to Virginia Beach, these artists continue to carry on our musical traditions. Festivals like the Old Fiddlers Conventions, The Richmond Folk Festival, jazz festivals and many other annual events have become a tradition for Virginians across the state.
10. Virginia Peanuts
The first commercial crop of peanuts was grown near Waverly in the 1800s and since then, Virginia Peanuts have become a staple in our state. “Virginia Peanuts” are a gourmet item these days with flavors that range from simply salted to Blue Crab Bay’s Chesapeake Bay Seasoned peanuts. It’s hard to find a Virginia-themed gift shop that doesn’t sell some form of these amazing snacks. Today, Virginia is known as the “Peanut Capital of the World” and Suffolk is home to the peanut company, Planters.
11. Pineapples Décor
It’s hard to say exactly how a fruit indigenous to South America ended up being a significant part of colonial design, decoration and architecture in Virginia – but it did. Traders had introduced the pineapple to the English colonists in Virginia and it was a hit. Soon it began showing up in architecture, such as William Byrd’s Westwood Plantation and nearby Shirley Plantation. Pineapples motifs were also incredibly popular for ceramics and dinnerware. So, by the time people began using fresh greens and plants to decorate for Christmas, pineapples seemed a reasonable choice. Today, especially in Williamsburg, pineapples are a traditional part of the Christmas holiday décor, as well as serving as an ongoing symbol for Virginia and are used as a sign of welcome.
12. Virginians LOVE being from Virginia
The state motto is “Virginia is for Lovers” and that love seems to be, without fail, for Virginia herself. I’ve been around the world and met Virginians in other states and other countries. And always, they show a pride and love for their home state. But no one has shown me more just how proud Virginians are than my readers. So without a doubt, I would say that one of our finest traditions is pride in, and love for, our beautiful home.
What are your favorite Virginia traditions? Whether it’s a traditional thing or a traditional event, we would love to hear about it in the comments below!