In the 18th century, George Washington celebrated Christmas with his family at Mount Vernon. While it may not have been as flashy as it is today with all the decorations and gifts, the themes of spending time with family and friends and taking a break from the hustle and bustle of working life have remained the same.

George Washington and family would sometimes attend Pohick Church on Christmas Day in Lorton, VAChristmas was primarily a religious holiday in 18th-century Virginia, and religion played a part in the observance of Christmas at Mount Vernon. Not much is known about the Washingtons religious practices, but there is evidence from George Washington’s diaries that the family occasionally attended Pohick church on Christmas Day over the years. 

Instead of celebrating on a single day, the Washingtons celebrated a holiday season beginning on Christmas Eve and lasting 12 days till Epiphany on January 6th. 

What Is Epiphany?

Epiphany, or the Twelfth Night, is an Anglican celebration recognizing the day the three wise men visited Jesus in the manger. Epiphany falls on January 6, 12 days after Christmas, and includes traditional celebrations leading up to the day with the Christmas holiday officially ending on the Twelfth Night.

Gifts were not typically a tradition on a colonial Christmas, but Martha and the children at Mount Vernon did receive them once on December 24, 1783. On that date, Washington rushed home in time for Christmas from Annapolis after resigning his commission. He had also won the Revolutionary War that November, and it was the first time he had been at Mount Vernon for Christmas in over 8 years. His homecomeing was more than enough reason to celebrate.

In his letters, Washington mentioned that he found the quiet holiday period to be a good time for visiting and putting business affairs in order.

Close friends and relatives frequently came to Mount Vernon for the holiday, which the Washingtons seemed to have eagerly anticipated. George Washington once humorously wrote to a friend who could not attend the festivities that:

... Altho I lament the effect, I am pleased at the cause which has deprived us of the pleasure of your aid in the attack of Christmas pies ....


Christmas for the Enslaved Community

The replica slave cabin at the Pioneer Farm at Mount Vernon (MVLA)

The replica slave cabin at the Pioneer Farm at Mount Vernon (MVLA)

On the estate, the Washington family wasn't the only ones who celebrated Christmas. This time provided a rare opportunity to rest and visit with family and friends at Mount Vernon and on neighboring plantations.

For a particular group of enslaved people, however, the Christmas holiday did not bring relief from their labor. Cooks, housemaids, waiters, and others working in the house were required to do extra work through the holiday, as the Washingtons hosted additional guests. The rest of the enslaved community was often given four days off, as well as extra food or possibly spirits.


Holiday Meals at Mount Vernon

Modern interpretation of Martha Washington's great cake recipe. Food photography by Renée Comet, styled by Lisa Cherkasky.

Modern interpretation of Martha Washington's great cake recipe. Food photography by Renée Comet, styled by Lisa Cherkasky.

Dinner is an essential part of any Christmas celebration and at Mount Vernon, there were no exceptions. Known for setting an appetizing table, Martha Washington kept extremely busy preparing for an onslaught of guests during the holiday season.

While there are no descriptions of a specific Christmas dinner at Mount Vernon and few references to foods associated with the season, descriptions written by visitors have been examined over the years.

It was Mrs. Washington's habit before or after breakfast to start planning the meals for the day, and one description by her grandson reported that she "...gave orders for dinner," at this time, "appointing certain provisions, a pair of ducks, a goose or a turkey to be laid by, and to be put down in case of the arrival of company; a very necessary provision in that hospitable mansion.” Martha really pulled out the stops during the holidays.

Especially before the Revolution, the Washingtons often visited with close friends on or about the sixth of January (Twelfth Night). Martha Washington would have prepared a specially decorated “great cake” for the Twelfth Night. Among Martha Washington's papers is a recipe for this great cake, copied for her by a granddaughter, Martha Custis. This rich fruit-filled pastry was a custom staple for Twelfth Night festivities.

Martha's great cake
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