Tuesday, December 7, 2010

Christmas at Mount Vernon

 “Christmas was primarily a religious holiday in 18th century Virginia, described by one colonist in 1774 as 'the day set apart to remember the Nativity of our Lord and Saviour Jesus Christ.'  It was also, however, a festive occasion marked by visits between friends and relatives, parties, and public assemblies.  A great deal has been written about the Washingtons and Christmas, much of it greatly embellished and characterized by wishful thinking.  As evidenced by George Washington's correspondence, his diaries and cash accounts, Christmas at Mount Vernon followed the typical Virginia pattern, which was far more simple than twentieth century Americans may feel comfortable with.

Religion played a part in the observance of the holiday at Mount Vernon, for the Washingtons occasionally attended church on Christmas day. In 1770, Christmas was a Tuesday and after going to nearby Pohick Church in the morning, the family returned to Mount Vernon for dinner.  Similar patterns were followed in 1771 and 1772, when December 25th fell on a Wednesday and Friday, respectively.  During his first year as president, Washington attended St. Paul's Church in New York City on Christmas day, a Friday, and later a number of 'respectable' visitors came to see Martha Washington at her regular weekly levee.  Records from other years are not always complete, so the Washingtons could easily have gone to church on other Christmases for which there is no documentation.

While they preferred to spend the holiday with family and friends, George and Martha Washington themselves were seldom the guests of others at Christmas.  The surviving records are not complete, however, except for the years of the French & Indian and Revolutionary Wars, when George Washington was with the army, 1769 was one Christmas he and Martha spent away from home.  The whole family went to Williamsburg that fall.  While George Washington attended the House of Burgesses, his wife and her two children amused themselves in Virginia's capital city and in visits to Martha's sister at Eltham Plantation.  The family headed for home on December 22nd, but spent several days in Fredericksburg with George Washington's sister's family at Kenmore and with his mother.  They arrived at Mount Vernon on the 28th in time for dinner.  A letter from Martha Washington to her granddaughter makes an even stronger case for the family's usual holiday practice.  During the presidency, while Nelly Custis spent the winter of 1795-96 with her mother in Virginia, her grandmother tried to keep her apprised of social events in Philadelphia, writing shortly after the start of the new year:  ‘The President and myself are much obliged to you my dear for your good wishes to us & we have spent our Christmas at home as we always have done....’”