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How did George Washington celebrate Christmas? And where did he spend the holidays?

"George Washington After the Battle of Princeton" by Charles Willson Peale (1741-1827), c. 1779-81, oil on canvas, The Metropolitan Museum of Art.
"George Washington After the Battle of Princeton" by Charles Willson Peale (1741-1827), c. 1779-81, oil on canvas, The Metropolitan Museum of Art.

Christmas and the winter holidays are popular times to come to George Washington’s Mount Vernon. While the estate is filled with a certain holiday flair, you won’t find in the Mansion any Christmas trees, mountains of wrapped gifts, or stockings hung with care over the Vaughan Mantel. Those familiar holiday traditions would arrive later in the 19th and 20th centuries. 

So, you might wonder, did George Washington even celebrate Christmas? Well, yes he did. Christmas was an important religious holiday in Washington’s time, and the twelve nights of Christmas, ending with balls and parties on January 6, extended the holiday season. For Washington, his Christmas experiences range from the joyous to the terrifying, from the mundane to the celebratory.

Christmas 1740

George Washington’s home on Ferry Farm, near Fredericksburg, burnt down on Christmas Eve in 1740, when he was only eight years old. The Washington family took shelter "in the detached kitchen and spent a cheerless Christmas Day."

Learn More about Ferry Farm

Christmas 1751

Washington wrote that he ate an Irish goose and drank to the health of absent friends while on board a ship returning to Virginia from Barbados. George Washington had been in Barbados with his older half-brother Lawrence, who was hoping the warmer climate would help cure his tuberculosis.

Learn more about their trip to Barbados

During the French & Indian War

Christmas 1753

George Washington was on the western frontier with the Virginia militia during the winter of 1753. They spent Christmas Eve at a place called Murdering Town and had a skirmish with “French Indians.”

The next day, they crossed a river, visited a Native American “Queen,” and gave her presents. Giving notable Native Americans presents was an established diplomatic practice.

Christmas 1755

Washington spent the day writing orders while stationed in Winchester, Virginia.

Learn More about the War

George Washington as First Colonel in the Virginia Regiment, Charles Willson Peale, oil on canvas, 1772 [U1897.1.1]. Gift of George Washington Custis Lee, University Collections of Art and History, Washington & Lee University, Lexington, Virginia.

Marriage and Home Life

Christmas 1758

In part because of his election to the House of Burgesses and his marriage, Washington resigned his military commission to take up life as a husband, planter, and burgess. On Saturday, January 6, 1759, George Washington married Martha Dandridge Custis—on the twelfth night of Christmas.



Christmas 1759

One would think that George and Martha’s first Christmas together would be a joyous one, but Martha contracted a case of the measles and was dreadfully sick through much of the first week of the new year.

Meanwhile, Washington oversaw his enslaved workers hauling in fishnets from the Potomac River and was bothered by "an Oyste[r] Man who had lain at my Landing and plagud [sic] me a good deal by his disorderly behaviour."



Christmas 1770

George Washington spent much of this Christmas in typical plantation activities, foxhunting with friends and family and visiting his mill. He attended services at Pohick Church and had dinner at home with his family.


Artist Junius Brutus Stearns depicts The Marriage of George Washington to Martha Custis.

Pohick Church (Albert Herring)

Martha Washington at the Front

Christmas 1775

During the first Christmas of the American Revolution, Martha Washington traveled to Cambridge, Massachusetts to be with her husband. Martha's presence at the Continental Army’s winter encampment each year not only helped to encourage George Washington but also boosted the morale of the entire camp.

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Longfellow National Historic Site, Cambridge, Massachusetts (Wikimedia)

Christmas 1776

During one of the darkest moments of the American Revolution, Gen. George Washington led his army over the frozen Delaware River on the evening of December 25, 1776. The famous Crossing of the Delaware led to the Battle of Trenton and a string of victories that revived the cause.

Learn more

During the Revolutionary War

Christmas 1777

General Washington and much of the Continental Army are in winter quarters at Valley Forge, Pennsylvania. Almost half the camp was either sick or dying during this trying winter. On Christmas Eve, Washington wrote, "Every regiment is to draw provisions, to complete their rations, for to morrow [sic]..."

It snowed Christmas Day, and by the next morning, it measured four inches deep.



Christmas 1779

George and Martha Washington were with the army at the winter headquarters at Morristown, New Jersey.

On Christmas Day, George Washington paid £15 “for a band of music.” A few days later, he attended "the celebration of the festival of St. John the Evangelist by the “American Union Lodge of Ancient Free and Accepted Masons.”



Christmas 1781

Another bittersweet Christmas spent in Philadelphia. George Washington had defeated Lord Cornwallis in the last major battle of the Revolutionary War in October 1781. However, Martha Washington's son, Jacky, died a few weeks after that victory from a fever contracted during the siege of Yorktown. George and Martha dined with Robert Morris at his Philadelphia home. Washington later wrote of this night that "Mrs. Washington is better than I could have expected after the Heavy loss she met with."

Learn more about the Yorktown Campaign

"The March to Valley Forge" by William Trego

Washington's headquarters at Valley Forge (Shenk)

George and Martha Washington stayed at the Ford Mansion in Morristown, New Jersey, during the winter encampment in 1779 (MVLA).

Christmas 1783

In November, Washington received news that the peace treaty with Great Britain had been signed and the war for American Independence was finally over. Washington rode to Annapolis to meet with Congress and to famously surrender his commission. For his return, Washington had purchased various "sundries," including a locket, three small pocket books, three thimbles, three sashes, a dress cap, a hat, a whirligig, fiddle, gun, and quadrille boxes for presents.

Mount Vernon

Christmas 1786

One of Martha Washington's cookbooks, a very popular English work by Hannah Glasse, included a recipe for an impressive dish called “A Yorkshire Christmas-Pye.” The author warned that the cook would need a bushel of flour to make this dish and noted that since these pies were often boxed and sent from Yorkshire to London as gifts, that the walls of the crust “must be well built.”

On December 26, 1786, George Washington wrote David Humphreys, a friend and former aide, that the Washingtons had served "one [pie] yesterday on which all the company, (and pretty numerous it was) [there were at least nine people present] were hardly able to make an impression..."



Christmas 1787

George Washington was able to spend a Christmas at his Mount Vernon home with family and friends. On the morning of December 22, 1787, he went foxhunting with Colonel Humphreys, Major Washington, and Tobias Lear.

Washington spent Christmas Eve working and gave fifteen shillings to the servants "for Christmas."

Yorkshire Christmas Pie (Renée Comet)

In 1787, George Washington paid 18 shillings to a man who brought a camel to Mount Vernon “for a show.”

Learn more

During the Presidency

Christmas 1789

This was George Washington’s first Christmas as the first president of the United States. As the White House had not been constructed, the Washingtons were in their rented New York home for this holiday season.

On Christmas Eve, President Washington attended to business; he met with General Knox, the Secretary of War. President Washington attended services at St. Paul’s Church. Visitors in the afternoon came to see Mrs. Washington as this was her regular levee day.



Christmas 1790

In 1790, the Washingtons were in Philadelphia, the new seat of government.

Back at Mount Vernon, the enslaved workers were granted four days off for Christmas. This practice would continue throughout the rest of Washington’s life.


Presidential dining scenario on display in the Donald W. Reynolds Museum at Mount Vernon. Photograph by Robert Creamer.

Washington's House in Philadelphia


Christmas 1797

After retiring from the presidency, George and Martha Washington came home to Mount Vernon.

On December 25, 1797, there was an appearance of snow, but it cleared. Martha Washington's nephew, William Dandridge, came to visit.

Washington worked on his accounts and wrote a letter to Thomas Law, the husband of Martha Washington’s eldest granddaughter, which closed with the words, “We, remain in Statu quo, and all unite in offering you, & yours, the compliments of the season; and the return of many, many more, and happy ones.”

Christmas 1798

With the young people away, George and Martha Washington had a relatively quiet Christmas, the last they would spend together.

Washington spent his final Christmas writing letters to his friends. In one to George Washington Lafayette, he announced Nelly's upcoming marriage to Lawrence Lewis, which was to take place on February 22, 1799, George Washington's 67th birthday.

George Washington died eleven days before the Christmas of 1799.

Read More letters in the Papers of George Washington

"George Washington and Family" by Thomas Pritchard Rossiter, 1858-1860. Gift of Nanine Hilliard Greene, 2000 [H-4173].