Christmas was primarily a religious holiday in 18th century Virginia, described by one colonist in 1774 as “the day set apart to remember the Nativity of our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ.” It was also, however, a festive occasion marked by visits between friends and relatives, parties, and public assemblies.
Christianity played a part in the observance of the holiday at Mount Vernon, for the Washingtons often attended church on Christmas day. In 1770, Christmas was on a Tuesday and after going to nearby Pohick Church in the morning, the family returned to Mount Vernon for dinner. Similar patterns were followed in other years.
While they preferred to spend the holiday with family and friends, George and Martha Washington themselves were seldom the guests of others at Christmas.
Houseguests, generally close friends and relatives, frequently came to Mount Vernon for several days at a time around Christmas.
Eighteenth century meals always appear bountiful to twentieth century eyes and there is no reason to suspect that those at Christmas were any different from others in the quantity of foods displayed. There are, unfortunately, no descriptions of a Christmas dinner at Mount Vernon and only a few indications of foods associated with this season. One dish known to have been served regularly was Christmas pie. Another food associated with the Christmas season were large cakes, which were often specially decorated for Twelfth Night. Other Virginians are known to have celebrated the traditional end of the holiday with these cakes and there is indirect evidence for such a practice at Mount Vernon.
George Washington’s military and political duties took him to other parts of the country, where different local customs regarding holiday gift-giving appear to have been taken into consideration. His first two Christmases as president were spent in New York, where Dutch influences were strong and New Year’s day was traditionally celebrated with special food and drink.
Many of the things twentieth century Americans expect to find at Christmas are of Germanic origin and were unknown to the residents of Mount Vernon. Williamsburg did not receive its first Christmas tree until 1842, when a German faculty member at the College of William and Mary set one up. Stockings filled with “good & useful [sic] things” were part of the Dutch Saint Nicholas Day celebration in New York, but were not part of the tradition in Anglican and Quaker sections of the country. The Christmas holidays at Mount Vernon were, however, a happy time, bringing together family and friends, good food, and freedom from work. One could hardly want for more.