Friday, December 16, 2011

Christmas with James & Dolley Madison

"Today when we think of Christmas, we think of Christmas trees in houses and town squares, carolers in the snow, and houses decorated with lights and bows. The season of Christmas is a visual feast everywhere you look. At this time of year, visitors often ask our guides how Montpelier would have looked during the Christmas season two centuries ago. The answer is a bit surprising.

Christmas, both the day and the season, was celebrated differently in the Madisons’ time. Many of the Christmas customs we know today did not become popular until the end of the 19th century or beginning of the 20th; other Christmas traditions were introduced when the Madisons were in retirement. Santa Claus comes from German and Dutch traditions, and St. Nick made his first appearance on a wider stage in America in Washington Irving’s History of New York, published in 1809. The first record we have of a Christmas tree in Virginia isn’t until 1842, in a house in Williamsburg. What, then, was Christmas like for the Madisons? 

Christmas in the late 18th and early 19th centuries was a time for visiting family and friends, hosting or attending large parties, balls, and dinners. In early December 1834, Dolley wrote to her niece Mary with news about what the family members at Montpelier were doing: “Anna & her sisters have gone to a dancing part at Newman’s – they are to keep the Christmas from this time to New Years day.” [note: Dolley Payne Todd Madison to Mary Estelle Elizabeth Cutts, December 11, 1834, Library of Congress, Washington, DC.] Little more than a year later, a friend writing from Richmond told Dolley that everyone there was still “feasting, dancing & making merry,” despite the cholera epidemic in the city.1

Although no one sent Christmas cards, letters sent at that time of year between friends or family often contained the wishes of the season. Dolley wrote to her friend James Taylor “I offer you many good wishes my kind friend on this mild Christmas day.” 2 Sometimes they sent gifts as well, although these were generally foodstuffs. The 1834 letter from a friend in Richmond that describes the seasonal parties also explains that the author had meant to send a gift – two barrels of oysters – but the barrels arrived late and with the wrong contents – vegetables instead of shellfish! Apparently, some things don’t change all that much.

While Montpelier at Christmas would have lacked most of the current signs of Christmas- trees, bows and ribbons, shining ornaments – the attitudes of the people and their enjoyment of the season would, we hope, seem very familiar. As Dolley wrote to her nieces in 1836, we at Montpelier send our readers “a thousand wishes for your happiness and prosperity on every and many Christmas days to come!” 3  
At I found this great post on their blog, and trust that they won't mind if I share it with my readers.  It is quoted entirely from:

1 Sarah Coles Stevenson to Dolley Payne Madison, December 24, 1834, Library of Virginia, Richmond, Virginia.
2 Dolley Payne Madison to James Taylor, December 25, 1834, Filson Historical Society, Louisville, Kentucky.
3 Dolley Payne Todd Madison to Mary Estelle Elizabeth Cutts and Dolley Payne Madison Cutts, January 2, [1836], Library of Congress, Washington, DC, United States.