Christmas at George Washington’s Mount Vernon consisted of holiday festivities that were typical throughout colonial Virginia. Both a religious and celebratory occasion, it was customary to attend church services Christmas morning then return home to enjoy dinner with friends and relatives. Guests were encouraged to participate in popular activities of dancing, foxhunting, concerts and hunting, and children received presents such as dolls, toys, tea sets and books.
The holiday celebration lasted 12 days with Christmas Day as the first day. Guests received hand-written invitations from the Washingtons. These were the equivalent of “Christmas cards” of the day.
Most of the servants and slaves were given four days off for Christmas. The cooks and house servants, however, had to work through the holiday time. Traditional colonial Christmas dinners would have more than one kind of meat. For example, a recipe in Martha Washington’s cookbook lists ingredients for a meat-filled pastry or Christmas pie: baked with turkey, goose, pigeon and chicken, and seasoned with nutmeg, cloves, salt and pepper.
The tradition of singing Christmas carols would have been a part of colonial Virginia. One of today’s popular carols, Joy to the World, was written by Isaac Watts during the 1760s. Watts was a native of Virginia.
George and Martha Washington enjoyed a good cup of hot chocolate. A paste was made out of the chocolate beans and formed into bricks. Chocolate during colonial times was considered a delicacy. George dashed his hot chocolate off with chile peppers and Martha added butterscotch Schnapps to her hot chocolate drink.
Washington was interested in animals whether domestic or not. Christmas, 1787, he paid 18 shillings for a camel from Egypt to be delivered to Mount Vernon. This information is in Washington’s handwriting in one of his ledgers. No reason is given for why he bought a camel but in his diaries, he said it attracted large crowds. As a result, the Mount Vernon historic site always has a camel as part of the traditional festivities. “Aladdin” is very popular with children of all ages.
Martha was a wealthy widow with two children when she and George married. She was an accomplished hostess and very comfortable entertaining. It was with the help of her money that Mount Vernon became such a successful plantation. This estate sits along the Potomac River has several outbuildings as well as the mansion.
Mount Vernon started out as a farmhouse built by George’s father in 1735. George’s older half-brother named it Mount Vernon, after a British navy admiral, and lived there from 1741 until he died in 1752. The property did not automatically go to George. He leased it in 1754, began adding on rooms four years later and officially inherited it in 1762.
The entire property, including gardens and farm, had 8,000 acres. Today, 500 acres are preserved as part of this historic site. The Mount Vernon Ladies’ Association of the Union is the oldest historic preservation organization in the country. This group owns and maintains the estate in trust for the people of the United States.
As part of the colonial holiday festivities, evening candlelight tours are available through Dec. 22nd. For more information on visiting the home of the first president of the United States, whether at Christmas or any other time, please click on the George Washington’s Mount Vernon site listed below.
By Cynthia Collins
Christmas at Mount Vernon
Christmas Camel at Mount Vernon