Tuesday, December 25, 2018

The Washingtons celebrate Christmas at Mount Vernon

Christmas often was primarily a religious holiday in 18C Virginia. It was also, however, a festive occasion marked by visits between friends & relatives, celebratory parties, & public assemblies. As described by George Washington's correspondence, diaries & cash accounts, Christmas at Mount Vernon followed typical patterns for the region & time period.

George Washington & his slave, Billy Lee. 1780, by John Trumbull. Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York.

The Washingtons were not the only people at Mount Vernon observing the Christmas holiday. Evidence indicates that most servants & slaves had 4 days off from work at Christmas time & utilized the personal time for relaxation & observation. For a particular group of slaves, however, the Christmas holiday did not bring relief from their work. Cooks & house servants were required to work through the holiday.

Religion played a significant part in the observance of the holiday at Mount Vernon, as the Washingtons frequently attended church on Christmas day. In 1770, for example, Christmas fell on a Tuesday. After going to nearby Pohick Church in the morning, the family returned to Mount Vernon for dinner. Similar patterns were followed in 1771 & 1772, when December 25 fell on a Wednesday & Friday.

The Washingtons preferred to spend the holiday with family & friends, & George & Martha frequently had guests over at Mount Vernon to celebrate Christmas. While at Mount Vernon guests were encouraged to make themselves at home & take part in typical seasonal activities. Hunting & foxhunting, for example, were particularly favored activities. Twice in 1768 & 3 times in both 1771 & 1773, George Washington went hunting with visiting friends between Christmas & Twelfth Night.

There are, unfortunately, no surviving descriptions of a Christmas dinner at Mount Vernon & only a few indications of foods associated with this season. However, one of Martha Washington's cookbooks included a recipe for Christmas pie, a savory pastry including turkey, goose, pigeon, & chicken, baked & spiced with salt, black pepper, nutmeg, & cloves.

Information from Thompson, Mary V. "Christmas at Mount Vernon," Mount Vernon Ladies' Association Annual Report 1990. Mount Vernon, VA: Mount Vernon Ladies' Association, 1990, 24-30.