Christmas at Mount Vernon
Learn about the holiday practices observed by the Washingtons and their enslaved workers at Mount Vernon.
Christmas was primarily a religious holiday in eighteenth-century Virginia, while also a festive occasion marked by visits between friends and relatives.
Religion played a significant role in Martha Washington’s life and as part of the observance of the holiday, the Washingtons frequently attended church on Christmas day. In 1770, 1771, and 1772, for example, after going to nearby Pohick Church in the morning, the family returned to Mount Vernon for dinner.
Dinner was an essential part of any Christmas celebration and at Mount Vernon, there were no exceptions. Known for setting an appetizing table, Martha Washington and her enslaved workers kept extremely busy preparing for the numerous guests during the holiday season. While there are no descriptions of a specific Christmas dinner at Mount Vernon there are a few references to foods associated with the season and descriptions from visitors.
It was Mrs. Washington's habit before breakfast to start planning the rest of the meals for the day. One description by her grandson, George Washington Parke Custis, 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.” It is probable that during the holiday seasons much of the meal preparations would have started long before the day the food was to be served.
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.”
The pie appears to have been a Christmas custom in the Washington household, mentioned in letters as the season approached. In November 1786, David Humphreys, a former military aide to the general, 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.”
Especially before the Revolution, the Washingtons often visited with close friends on or about the sixth of January, known as Twelfth Night. Among Martha Washington's papers is a recipe for a great cake, copied for her by a granddaughter, Martha Custis. This rich fruit-filled pastry was a custom staple for Twelfth Night festivities. Martha Washington would have ensured her enslaved chefs prepared this specially decorated “great cake” for the celebration.