Christmas celebrations in the American colonies were very different than they are today. You would not have found piles of wrapped gifts under Christmas trees, stockings hung with care on mantels, or televisions playing reruns of It’s a Wonderful Life. But many things were the same. Christmas was an important religious holiday in George Washington’s time, and the twelve nights of Christmas, ending in balls and parties on January 6 extended the holiday season. For Washington, his Colonial Christmas experiences were both joyful and terrifying.
George Washington’s boyhood home in Fredericksburg, Va. burned down on Christmas Eve of 1740. The Washington family took shelter “in the detached kitchen and spent a cheerless Christmas Day.” In 1751 George ate Irish goose and drank to the health of absent friends while onboard a ship returning to Virginia from Barbados, where Washington had been with his older brother Lawrence who was hoping the warmer climate might help cure his tuberculosis. Christmas of 1753 was spent on the western frontier with the Virginia militia fighting the French and Indian War. Christmas 1758 was a momentous time in George Washington’s life, as he married Martha Dandridge Custis on January 6, 1759 – the twelfth night of Christmas. George spent much of Christmas 1770 in typical activities, foxhunting with friends and family and visiting his mill. He attended services at Pohick Church and had dinner at home with his family. In 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 encampments not only helped to encourage Washington, but also boosted the morale of the entire camp. Christmas 1777, Gen. Washington and much of the Continental Army were in winter quarters at Valley Forge, Pennsylvania. Almost half the camp was either sick or dying. It snowed Christmas day and by the next morning, it measured four inches deep. 1781 was a bittersweet Christmas, spent in Philadelphia. Washington had defeated Lord Cornwallis in the last major battle of the Revolutionary War in October. However, Martha’s son, Jacky, died a few weeks after that victory of a fever contracted at the siege of Yorktown. Christmas 1786 saw the Washingtons finally spending Christmas together at their Mount Vernon home. They most likely attended services at Pohick Church, then returned home, where a “Yorkshire Christmas-Pye” was served. On December 26, 1786, 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) were hardly able to make an impression…” The recipe for the impressive dish included a bushel of flour and the preparation was lengthy, labor intensive, and difficult. 1789 was George Washington’s first Christmas as the President of the United States. The White House had not yet been constructed, so the Washingtons were in their rented New York home for this holiday season and attended services at St. Paul’s Church.
In 1798, with the young people away, George and Martha had a relatively quiet Christmas at home in Mount Vernon, the last they would spend together. George Washington died eleven days before Christmas of 1799. As Washington was dying, Mrs. Washington is recorded as having no doubts, no fears for him. After forty years of devoted affection and uninterrupted happiness, she “resigned him without a murmur into the arms of his Savior and his God, with the assured hope of his eternal felicity.”
Lessons & Carols. From the first Sunday of Advent and continuing through Christmas Eve, colonial parishioners, including Washington, would have heard the same collect or prayer from the Book of Common Prayer:
ALMIGHTY God, give us grace that we may cast away the works of darkness, and put upon us the armour of light, now in the time of this mortal life in which thy Son Jesus Christ came to visit us in great humility; that in the last day, when he shall come again in his glorious majesty to judge both the quick and the dead, we may rise to the life immortal; through him who liveth and reigneth with thee and the Holy Ghost, one God, now and forever. Amen.
This will also be a part of the American Village’s fifteenth annual Festival Service of Nine Lessons and Carols on Sunday December 2. The service begins with the procession from the west door of the Chapel, symbolically passing from darkness to light, and continues with lessons—readings from Holy Scripture that will be almost identical to those used on Christmas Day in Washington’s time, namely the Gospel of St. John, 1:1-14. The essence of the service is to center the attention of worshipers and participants alike on the central message of the relationship of God and mankind – from the creation, the disobedience and fall of humanity, the promise of a Messiah, the “Word made flesh” that came to dwell among us, and ultimately of Christ’s sacrifice and redemptive resurrection. Set in a chapel evocative of colonial times the service offers a wonderful opportunity of worship to God the Father, Jesus Christ His son, and the Holy Spirit. The American Village invites you to join us for this special service, no reservations required, and bids you a meaningful Advent season and a joyous Christmas.
Founder and President, The American Village, Montevallo, Ala.
Since it’s opening in 1999, about 650,000 students from all over the Southeast have visited the American Village, “stepped back in history” and discovered the drama of America’s founding, www.AmericanVillage.org
More about Christmas with the Washingtons can be found at www.mountvernon.org/george-washington/george-washington-at-christmas