The nation’s first First Lady radiates Southern hospitality and charm as she greets visitors in the mansion’s spacious dining room. This is the place where Washington planned the battle of Yorktown and where he learned that he’d been elected President. Tonight, it’s a different history. The year is 1797, and it’s the first Christmas in eight years that the Washingtons have spent at their beloved Mt. Vernon.
Christmas at Mt. Vernon is a special time, with demonstrations about Colonial chocolate making, garlands trimming the mansion doors, a “gingerbread” model of the mansion and grounds and – perhaps the most unusual thing of all – a camel grazing near Mt. Vernon’s spacious lawn. George Washington was fascinated by exotic animals and had one brought to the estate one holiday. The temporary resident this year is a very friendly four-year-old dromedary named Aladdin who enjoys having his neck scratched and posing for photos.
But the “don’t miss” feature is the special Candlelight tours of the mansion offered every weekend from Thanksgiving until Christmas. Small groups are ushered through the mansion and grounds as “members” of the Washington family and their servants, employees, and slaves talk about the holiday at the estate. It’s a more intimate tour than the one most visitors enjoy.
Desserts fill plates in the dining room where Lady Washington holds court. Looking and sounding for all the world like your grandmother, she clearly relishes her role as hostess, but is also clearly glad to finally be leaving public life behind her. (Although the Washingtons had over 600 guests every year at Mt. Vernon, many of them uninvited.) She takes particular glee in boasting about her Great Cake; the ingredients start with 20 eggs and 5 pounds of flour. In the main hall, granddaughter Nellie shows the elegant harpsichord she plays to accompany guests and The General as they sing carols and popular songs.
But not all is bright and cheerful. Only a handful of people lived the cultured and comfortable lives of the Washingtons. Upstairs, house slave Caroline speaks of the long hours she and the other workers put in during the holidays. While some slaves and workers get a few days off, the house staffs work round-the-clock with no break then or later. It’s a small consolation when an appreciative guest leaves a few coins.
Christmas in Colonial times was very different from today. Christmas itself was a quiet religious observance which started The 12 Days of Christmas, marked by parties, feasts, and celebrations. They culminated with 12th Night, January 6th. It was a popular date for weddings – including George and Martha’s, married in 1759.
Keeping those guests fed was the responsibility of Mrs. Forbes, whose larder includes geese and ducks hanging from the ceiling. She passes out a “receipt” for Lady Washington’s cake that’s adapted for modern kitchens. It calls for only 10 eggs.
The sound of a fiddle and candles flickering in the windows of the greenhouse beckon from across Mt. Vernon’s expansive lawn. Inside, dancers step to “The Indian Queen,” a forerunner of the Virginia Reel. After the last bow and curtsey, visitors drift toward a bonfire where carolers entertain and Aladdin stands in his paddock, accepting one last scratch before the guests leave the 18th century.
Mount Vernon is open daily. Hours vary with the season. General admission includes the mansion tour and access to the grounds. The Candlelight tours are held on weekends from Thanksgiving until Christmas; they are an additional fee, and tickets must be purchased in advance. www.MountVernon.org. (Photos by Fran Severn)