Monticello, the Charlottesville, VA, home of Thomas Jefferson, is hosting evening tours beginning Dec. 12 and throughout the month that combine history and Christmas holiday traditions of the late 18th and early 19th centuries. The first tour starts after dark at 5:30, followed by additional tours spaced 15 minutes apart at 5:45 and 6 p.m. Each tour is one hour long.
Christmas during Jefferson’s time included feasting, lavish parties, and the gathering of friends and family. Visitors would often stay for several days. Sometimes, Monticello’s 12 bedrooms ended up accommodating as many as 50 guests. Children received gifts of toys and books, adults enjoyed concerts and visiting, and everyone enjoyed the variety of food. Mince pie, a holiday favorite, consisted of apples, spices, raisins and beef suet. Jefferson was an accomplished violinist and would play familiar tunes as part of the festivities. His favorite Christmas carol was Adeste Fideles, also known as O Come, All Ye Faithful.
The structure that stands today is not the way it looked when it was first built. The Monticello evening tours combine this history while sharing stories of Christmas holiday traditions. Jefferson had inherited the land in 1764 at the age of 21. He designed the house and construction began in 1769. The following year, he moved into the completed South Pavilion. Jefferson married Martha Wayles Skelton in 1772 and later inherited more land from his father-in-law. They had six children but only two daughters survived to adulthood. Martha died in 1782 after 10 years of marriage, a few months after the birth of their last child.
He served the country in various capacities from drafting the Declaration of Independence in 1776 to an eight-year term as the third president of the United States from 1801-1809. It was the five years, 1784-1789, he spent in France as Commissioner and Minister that influenced him to redesign Monticello. This redesign gave the house one of its most noticeable features of a dome. The Dome Room has a circular skylight and large circular windows. Other than its use as living quarters for a grandson with a new bride for awhile, the purpose of the room is not known. It had become a storage area by the time Jefferson died.
The African-Americans who worked the plantation were also given a few days off at Christmas. During the holiday, they had fresh wild game, in addition to the usual pork and cornmeal. They also had molasses, apples, and a variety of nuts. Families spent time together and were given gifts of food and clothing.
When guests arrived, they would wait to be received by their host in the Entrance Hall. This served and still serves as a natural history museum. Jefferson had Native American items on display that were brought back by Lewis and Clark during their expedition. Busts of famous thinkers, a bust of himself and his adversary Alexander Hamilton, and an engraving of the signing of the Declaration of Independence were among the objects in the hall. Artwork depicting Biblical scenes and maps of the world added to the museum.
Jefferson died at Monticello, July 4, 1826, 50 years after the adoption of the Declaration of Independence. He was 83 years old. His public life is well-known, but it is the Monticello evening tours that combine his contributions to American history with a more personal look at Christmas holiday traditions. For a list of specific days and times of the tours, the website is listed below.
By Cynthia Collins
Photo credit: majunznk, Creativecommons Flickr license