Christmas was primarily a religious holiday in eighteenth century Virginia. It was also, however, a festive occasion marked by visits between friends and relatives, celebratory parties, and public assemblies. As described by George Washington's correspondence, diaries and cash accounts, Christmas at Mount Vernon followed a typical pattern for the region and time period.
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 and 1772, when December 25 fell on a Wednesday and Friday.
The Washingtons preferred to spend the holiday with family and friends, and George and Martha frequently had guests over at Mount Vernon to celebrate Christmas. While at Mount Vernon guests were encouraged to make themselves at home and take part in typical seasonal activities. Hunting and foxhunting, for example, were particularly favored activities. Twice in 1768 and three times in both 1771 and 1773, George Washington went hunting with visiting friends between Christmas and Twelfth Night.
There are, unfortunately, no surviving descriptions of a Christmas dinner at Mount Vernon and 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, and chicken, baked and spiced with salt, black pepper, nutmeg, and cloves.
The Washingtons were not the only people at Mount Vernon observing the Christmas holiday. Evidence indicates that most servants and slaves had four days off from work at Christmas time and utilized the personal time for relaxation and observation. For a particular group of slaves, however, the Christmas holiday did not bring relief from their work. Cooks and house servants were required to work through the holiday.
Many of the aspects that modern Americans would expect to find at Christmas time are of Germanic origin and, as a result, were unknown to the residents of Mount Vernon. However, the holiday was an important celebratory and religious event at the Mount Vernon Estate.
Mary V. Thompson
Mount Vernon Estate and Gardens
Custis, George Washington Parke. Recollections and Private Memoirs of Washington. Philadelphia: J.W. Bradley, 1861.
Thompson, Mary V. "Christmas at Mount Vernon," Mount Vernon Ladies' Association Annual Report 1990. Mount Vernon, VA: Mount Vernon Ladies' Association, 1990, 24-30.