It was Dec. 23, 1783. George Washington was eager to depart the Maryland State House in Annapolis where he had just resigned his commission as chief of the Continental army and ushered in civil government “of, by and for the people.” He was going home to his beloved Mount Vernon, a place he hadn’t seen for 8 years, for Christmas.
Christmas was a joyous time of meetups with family and friends, a twelve-day event that ended on the day of Epiphany, Jan. 6, a religious memory of the day the Magi found Jesus in a manger in Bethlehem. Christmas trees and Santa Claus and stockings hung by the fireplace were not yet a part of a Christmas celebration in the new nation. The retired general, however, did have a bundle of gifts for his loved ones at Mt. Vernon.
A locket whirligig, fiddle, gun, hats, quadrille boxes were gifts recorded in his diary.
Christmas pasts had not been a joyous celebration for the General. Seven years earlier on Dec. 25, 1776, he was leading 5,400 troops across the frozen Delaware for a surprise attack on Hessian troops he believed would be celebrating the season with heavy drinking. He was right. The victorious Battle of Trenton was a turning point, reviving the cause in the early battle for Independence. A year later at Valley Forge, 2,000 of his troops would be dying of disease or unclothed to battle the ultra cold. It snowed on Christmas Day.
On the first Christmas of the Revolution, 1775, Washington’s wife Martha Custis, traveled to Massachusetts to be with him. She continued this journey to be with George every “holiday” season. Her gracious presence, one surmises, also boosted the morale of troops during these trying times.
Martha was 26 years old and widowed when she met the charming George Washington. Evidently there was instant attraction between the 5-foot Martha and the 6-foot-2 colonel. Within months, in 1759 at her home, on Jan. 6, the twelfth day of Christmas, they were married.
Over the years Martha became known for entertaining house guests and for her appetizing table. Buttery “great cakes” with fruits and currents were served wherever she lived on Jan 6. But a Yorkshire Christmas pie, all 168 pounds of it, and 9 feet in circumference would be shipped from England to Holiday festivities. George described it as “served to all the company, this one pie, so huge they hardly made an impression.”
Dinner was an essential part of Christmas celebration at Mt. Vernon.
A smaller Yorkshire pie, baked over 2 days, became a Christmas tradition there. In 1787, George Washington began another holiday tradition giving his servants 15 shillings and 4 days of holiday. It was also a tradition for the Washingtons to attend Christmas Eve services at Pohick Church, a Anglican Church with a family connection. In 1736, Augustus Washington, George’s father, sponsored its first rector, Charles Green. Quiet Christmas days were spent fox hunting with friends and writing letters.
Retired and again at Mount Vernon he wrote to his granddaughter on a snowy Christmas Day “ … offering you and yours the compliments of the season and the return of many, many more and happy ones.”
Eleven days before Christmas in 1799 George Washington died. He was 67 years old.
Ellen Moyer is a former mayor of Annapolis. She welcomes comments and idea sharing and can be contacted at [email protected].
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