Christmas at Mount Vernon
Learn about the Christmas traditions of the Washingtons and the many holiday-inspired events taking place at Mount Vernon this year!
As it does every year, Mount Vernon’s team has brought some wintertime changes to the Mansion to mark the holiday season.
Christmas was primarily a religious holiday in 18th-century Virginia, but then, as now, it was also a festive occasion marked by visits between friends and relatives, parties, and public assemblies. The Washingtons' holiday season began a few days before Christmas and lasted either until Twelfth Night, or Epiphany, which marks the visit of the Magi to the infant Jesus on January 6. The Washingtons celebrated Christmas at Mount Vernon much as their Tidewater Virginia neighbors did. These celebrations, which were based on English customs, stressed sociability and entertaining; and they were far simpler than the Christmas we experience today. Many Virginians traveled on horseback or by carriage to visit family and friends during these several weeks. George and Martha Washington were seldom the guests of others at Christmas; however, they hosted numerous close friends and relatives, often for several days at a time, at Mount Vernon.
Here is how the rooms of the Mansion might've looked to a Christmas guest of Martha and George Washington...
After settling into their temporary quarters in the Servants’ Hall, visiting white servants spent part of their holiday as many of the Washingtons’ white servants and enslaved workers did, by playing spirited games and drinking. Cards were one form of entertainment enjoyed by almost everyone on the estate.
Some of the Washingtons’ white servants probably gathered in the Servants’ Hall as well, to learn news from those traveling with guests and to gamble with the small gifts of money they received from the General.
Most dinners at Mount Vernon consisted of two courses, each offering a variety of savory and sweet dishes, followed by fruits, nuts, cheese and wines to end the meal. However, on occasion, a separate dessert course, such as we see in the New Room, was offered.
We enter the room just as the Washingtons and their guests prepare to enter the room to sample the desserts which have been artfully laid out before them. The enslaved butler and valets have cleared the table of the previous course and are preparing to carry away the final dirty plates.
A dessert pyramid towers over the table. (George Washington is known to have owned a dessert pyramid similar to the one displayed.) Made of three stacked glass salvers of graduated size, the pyramid holds jelly glasses filled with translucent, sweet, tasty jellies in a variety of colors. The Washingtons’ enslaved cook made the sweet jellies from the bone of calves’ feet (gelatin), isinglass (gelatin obtained from fish), nutmeg, mace, sugar, and various fruit flavors. The colors were added to the mixture. Red was made with cochineal, green with spinach juice, and yellow with saffron. At the top, a glass vessel holds a pomander, or orange studded with cloves.
To the left of the pyramid is a hedgehog cake—a confection made of almond paste mixed with eggs, cream, sugar, and butter that was heated until thick, molded into the animal shape, and then topped with slivered blanched almonds for bristles and currants for eyes. Hannah Glasse’s The Art of Cookery, an edition of which Martha Washington owned, contains a recipe for this curious dish.
At the opposite side of the table is a Twelfth Night cake, topped with molded sugar swans. This large cake was similar to a light fruit cake or panettone covered with hard white icing and baked with a bean inside—the man or woman who found the bean was named king or queen. Virginians are known to have celebrated the end of the holiday season in the English manner with such cakes, and good evidence exists that they were made at Mount Vernon. Among the surviving papers of Martha Washington is a manuscript cookbook she inherited from the family of her first husband, Daniel Parke Custis, which contains four recipes for “great” and “excellent cakes,” as well as a recipe for a “great Cake” written for Martha Washington by her granddaughter Martha Parke Custis.
Other sumptuous treats on the table include a plum pudding; macaroons; colored marzipan sheep, shells and fruits; diamond-shaped almond cakes topped with sugar-coated almonds; iced almond biscuits; and diamond-, heart- and crescent-shaped Queen’s cakes arranged in geometric patterns. Again, cookbooks associated with Martha Washington contain recipes for all these delights.
Also shown here is the Washingtons’ French porcelain service. In 1789, George Washington purchased this service from the Comte de Moustier, the French minister to the United States, when the diplomat was recalled to France. The service consists of white porcelain with gilt edges made at Sevres, the French royal manufactory, and supplemented by pieces from two other French factories, Nast and Angouleme. The Washingtons used this service throughout the presidency and on special occasions after returning to Mount Vernon.
A guest has just gotten up, washed her face, and is preparing to dress for the day’s festivities. All the layers for a woman’s formal dress are laid out for her on the chairs, including stays, an underpetticoat, a blue silk petticoat, blue silk gown, and decorative muslin apron. Houses in the 18th century could be bitterly cold during the winter months, and guests might have arisen in the morning to find their wash water frozen solid.
The dining tables, which ordinarily occupy the dining room, have been moved to the New Room, where they play host to the Washingtons’ guests who are getting ready to enjoy dessert. Thus, the dining room is without dining tables and the room is left at rest with its chairs lined up against the wall.
The Washingtons welcomed many guests to Mount Vernon during the busy holiday season, and it is likely that all available space was utilized to accommodate everyone. Molly and Caroline, the two enslaved chambermaids, have prepared the room to receive guests. The bed curtains and linens typically remained in storage to protect them from light and pests, and the chambermaids brought them out and assembled the bed only when a guest would be using the bed.
While at Mount Vernon, guests were encouraged to make themselves at home and take part in the seasonal activities enjoyed by the Washingtons. George Washington Parke Custis remembered, “Books and papers were offered for their [guests’] amusement; they were requested to take good care of themselves…” Another visitor wrote, “Your apartments are your home, the servants of the house are yours, and whilst every inducement is held to bring you into the general society in the drawing room, or at the table, it rests with yourself to be served or not with every thing in your own chamber…”
Here, a gentleman retires with his reading by the fire.
A guest has retired for the evening in the Small Room, where a warming pan is being passed through the sheets to warm the bed.
Here, a lady has just returned from a stroll in the gardens.
According to Nelly Custis Lewis, Martha Washington typically spent the time between 9 and 10 a.m. in her room “for an hour of meditation reading & prayer and that hour no one was ever allowed to interfere with.” She also began her day by preparing the household’s schedule and instructing servants on their daily tasks.
A heavy wool bed rug has been added to the Washingtons’ bed for the winter months. In the Chesapeake region, rugs were often imported from England and were especially popular in the years before the Revolution.
Although the surviving record is not complete, George Washington’s diaries, correspondence, and account books suggest that he frequently spent Christmas Day quietly, as he did his Sundays, writing letters and keeping up the paperwork necessary to run a large estate.
At the conclusion of a meal, Washington’s enslaved butler, Frank Lee, would clean the gold-and-white porcelain in the butler’s pantry before returning it to the china closet (bull’s eye room) on the third floor.
The cooks have finished making a Christmas pie, which sits on the table in the kitchen, ready for the following day’s dinner. Savory Christmas pies were a holiday custom in the Washington household, mentioned in letters as the season approached. For example, in November 1786, David Humphreys, a former military aide to George Washington, expressed his disappointment that he could not be at the estate for the holidays and thus would “not have the felicity of eating Christmas Pie at Mount Vernon.” In his post-Christmas reply, Washington voiced regret that Humphreys had not been with them to “aid in the Attack of Christmas Pyes…on which all the company…were hardly able to make an impression.”
Hannah Glasse’s The Art of Cookery (which Martha Washington owned) contains a recipe for Yorkshire Christmas pie. This elaborate dish called for a turkey, goose, fowl, partridge, and pigeon to be boned and seasoned with mace, nutmeg, cloves, and black pepper. The five birds were then placed one inside the other “so it will look only like a whole turkey” (an 18th-century version of a “turducken”). Once inside the crust, this poultry was surrounded by additional wild game, such as rabbit and woodcock. Then, four pounds of butter were added and the whole pie baked in “a very hot oven” for at least four hours.
Savory meat pies like this were sturdy and could last for days. Glasse notes that “these pies are often sent to London in a box as presents; therefore the walls must be well built.”
As part of the Yuletide celebrations, Martha Washington arranged for a type of fruited cake known as a "Great Cake" to be baked and served as a dessert on the last of the twelve days of Christmas, known as Epiphany or Twelfth Night. Martha Washington's Great Cake was a large celebratory cake consisting of fruit and spices. Here, Washington’s housekeeper, Mrs. Forbes, and his two enslaved cooks, Nathan and Lucy, begin gathering ingredients to make this traditional delicacy. They have gathered flour, sugar, butter, and eggs.
Great Cakes were a common dessert in the Colonial Era and tended to be very large, as reflected by the list of ingredients that varied according to the version of the recipe used. One transcription of Martha Washington's Great Cake recipe utilized the following ingredients: a peck of flour, three quarters of a pound of sugar, three pounds of melted butter, and seven pounds of currants. Added to these ingredients were four grated nutmegs, cloves, cinnamon, mace, caraway seeds, water, and salt. Other ingredients included yeast derived from barm (the foam that rises to the top of fermented liquor), and liquid derived from posset, a warm mixture of ale and cream.
The cake would most likely have been baked in a medium oven in a large mold so that it would have risen, with the oven's heat reduced once the cake started to rise and firm. The end result was a risen cake similar to panettone, the Italian delicacy that lies somewhere between a cake and bread in texture, which is also commonly eaten at Christmas. However, Martha Washington's Great Cake would have had a denser texture than panettone and contained greater quantities of fruit and spice than the Italian sweet.
Among Martha Washington's surviving papers was a recipe written out by her granddaughter Martha Parke Custis that utilized different ingredients and quantities from more common Great Cake recipes. Custis' recipe included forty eggs worked into four pounds of butter, four pounds of sugar, five pounds of flour, and an equal quantity of fruit. The recipe also called for mace and nutmeg, and to these dry ingredients wine and brandy were added.
Though Martha Washington was adept at entertaining, she did not cook everything herself. Instead, Mount Vernon’s enslaved servants were enlisted in the kitchens and would have prepared the Great Cake.
Christmas was a rare holiday for many slaves at Mount Vernon. While enslaved cooks and house servants had extra work to do, the other slaves received four days off (December 25-28). They spent this allotted time relaxing and socializing, as well as visiting friends and families at neighboring plantations. George Washington’s financial records occasionally note gifts of extra food, alcohol, or money to certain slaves at Christmas, such as in December 1788, when Peter and Giles each received six shillings.