For many of us, the day after Christmas means taking down the tree and storing decorations until next season, or perhaps hunting bargains on what is the second biggest shopping day of the year.
But for Colonial Virginians, Christmas Day was the beginning of a festive season that lasted nearly two weeks. Regardless of social class or race, Virginians of yesteryear celebrated Christmas for 12 days, from December 25 to the feast of the Epiphany on January 6.
So this week, George Washington Birthplace National Monument will throw a party that would make a Colonial feel at home, as costumed volunteers, musicians and staff members create a holiday tableau the Washington family might have enjoyed in the 1730s.
“It’s about expectations; it’s looking for the happy event after a season of penance,” says Dick Lahey, Park Ranger. “With Advent, it’s waiting for the birth of Jesus on Christmas Day. They probably would have seen it inappropriate to celebrate before the event.”
But afterwards? Festivities often included pageants, dancing, miracle plays and weddings, “all of which involved eating and drinking,” says Debbie Lawton, a volunteer from King George who is in charge of colonial-style hearth cooking at the park. “Christmastide was a favorite time for weddings.”
In fact, George Washington and Martha Custis were married on Twelfth Night, the eve of the Epiphany.
“To the Virginians, Christmas was a reason to party, to celebrate. Even the servants got some time off. The cook had to keep working though, to keep the party going,” and to make treats like Twelfth Night Cake and Tavern Biscuits (see recipe).
Visitors to “Washington Family Christmas” will see artisans at work, spinning and blacksmithing, since on a plantation, the work went on even during a holiday. That’s one reason, says Lawton, Colonials favored the Christmas season.
“When looked at from the perspective of the agricultural work year, partying in the off-season makes sense. During the spring rush, summer field work, and autumn harvest, there is simply too much work to do to take off any significant amount of time. But during the deep winter season, when there wasn’t much work to do in the fields, it was easier to take a break.”
Saturday at dusk, a once-a-year treat will sweep visitors back in time.
“I think the neatest thing we’re going to do, we have candle lanterns that we only put out for Christmas to light the way from the Visitor’s Center to the historical area,” says Lahey. “So the historical area will be candlelit.”
“The way we express Christmas in modern times is mostly due to the German influence in America,” Lahey says. “The Germans would have a very high festival, in a much grander fashion, but it would spill over before and beyond Christmas Day. People of English ancestry would celebrate it the way the Washingtons did. The Christmas tree didn’t come to the English-speaking world until it was adopted by Queen Victoria.”
George Washington Birthplace National Monument is located 11 miles west of Montross on Route 204, 2 miles off of Route 3. For more information, call (804) 224-1732.