Christmas was an important religious holiday in George 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. This article is based on information compiled by Mount Vernon’s Research Historian, Mary V. Thompson.
George Washington’s boyhood home in Fredericksburg burned down on Christmas Eve. The Washington family took shelter “in the detached kitchen and spent a cheerless Christmas Day.”
Ate Irish goose and drank to the health of absent friends while onboard a ship returning to Virginia from Barbados. George Washington had been in Barbados with his older brother Lawrence who was hoping that the warmer climate would help cure his tuberculosis.
During the French & Indian War
George Washington was on the western frontier with the Virginia militia. 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 an Indian “Queen” and gave her presents. Giving notable Native Americans presents was an established practice in frontier diplomacy.
Wrote orders while stationed in Winchester, Virginia.
Marriage and Home Life
In anticipation of upcoming changes due to his election to the House of Burgesses and his imminent marriage, George 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.
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 George worked to haul in fish nets in the Potomac 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.”
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.
During the Revolutionary War
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 encampments not only helped to encourage George Washington, but also boosted the morale of the entire camp.
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.
General Washington and much of the Continental Army were in winter quarters at Valley Forge, Pennsylvania. Almost half the camp was either sick or dying during this trying winter. On Christmas Eve, Washington writes “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.
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.”
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 of a fever contracted at 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.”
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.
Back to Mount Vernon
One of Martha Washington’s cookbooks, a very popular English work by Hannah Glasse, included a recipe for an impressive dish, which it 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 [a 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.…”
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”. In 1787, George Washington paid 18 shillings to a man who brought a camel to Mount Vernon “for a show.”
During the Presidency
This was George Washington’s first Christmas as the first president of the United States. As the White House had not yet 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.
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.
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.”
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.
© George Washington’s Mount Vernon –
www.mountvernon.org. Reprinted with permission.