WILLIAMSBURG — One of the more enduring symbols of Colonial Williamsburg this time of year is that of the pineapple. It graces the doorways and décor around the colonial district. What is the reason behind this tropical addition to the Historic Triangle’s winter holiday season?
Despite its often-misunderstood connection to Hawaii, the pineapple’s origins began in South America. Historians believe that native tribes took the pineapple to the Caribbean islands and it was there that Christopher Columbus discovered it. He raved about it being the tastiest treat ever and it became highly sought after.
Only one massive problem to western Europeans who graved the sweet fruit: it rotted quickly on the long journey back across the Atlantic.
The fruit was given the moniker of “pineapple” because its exterior resemblance to a pinecone (which was a symbol of power dating back to the Ancient Romans) and its texture and flavor similar to that of an apple.
Never to be deterred by a pithy thing like export, the wealthy of British society had a high demand for it. Caribbean plantations grew the ripened fruit and, when the British started settling in the New World, those who could afford it, continued to seek out the fruit to satiate their pineapple cravings.
In the late 17th century, the pineapple took on a rather “holy” meaning as the British began associating it with Christianity after observing that it took one fruit to give its life for another. Sir Christopher Wren started incorporating the pineapple into his designs around 1681, with it being prominently displayed on church finials.
Despite finding themselves closer to the Caribbean, bringing the pineapple to Virginia was still very difficult and therefore the ability to have a pineapple, let alone eat it, was rare. These were easier to transport during the cooler months due to the cold temperatures preserving the pineapple for a bit longer.
In the 18th century, the pineapple became the inspiration for Colonial Era artists, who added its visage to everything from flatware to concrete adornments on the homes of Virginia’s upper crust.
When a confectioner was lucky enough to have a pineapple come through its doors, a peculiar operation would take place. Residents were able to rent out the pineapple to place as a centerpiece of their formal dinners. After all, these dinners and celebrations were a way to assert one’s status on the social chain and what better way than to display the tropical fruit? After it was passed around and was ready to eat, the confectioner would then sell it off at a very high price.
What we see today as the frequent use of the pineapple in holiday décor around the Historic Triangle is not entirely historically accurate. According to Colonial Williamsburg, it wasn’t until the 1930s that pineapples were incorporated into the seasonal greenery as a symbol of early Virginia’s hospitality.
Next time you’re debating what to put in the center of your holiday table, put the ham aside, forget about a cornucopia or your grandmother’s vase. Do as our early Virginia forefathers did: Bring out the pineapple.