It all started a few weeks ago when I took a holiday tour of Gettysburg. I expected to see lights and cute shops and sample delicious food and drink. But I didn’t expect to have a chance to experience Christmas of the past.
When we stopped in to the Shriver House Museum, we got to experienced a bit of what Christmas would have been like in the 1860s, including a simple Christmas tree and Christmas crackers on the dinner table for the holiday meal. But I had no idea how different Christmas in America was less than 100 years earlier.
Every year, Mount Vernon, the historic home of George Washington situated on the banks of the Potomac River, transforms the estate into a holiday experience for visitors of all ages.
Admittedly, I haven’t visited Mount Vernon since one of my elementary school field trips and I’d been meaning to make it back with my 10 year old son (especially since he developed an interest after listening to the Hamilton soundtrack nonstop with me!). So a Mount Vernon by Candlelight tour seemed like the perfect opportunity to make the trek to northern Virginia, step back in time, and experience what Christmas was like in the 1780s.
Mount Vernon is actually open 365 days per year but the Christmas at Mount Vernon experience is only around until January 6th (read on to find out why!).
Upon arrival, we were given a card informing us of whose invitation we would be received as guests of the Washingtons (it was really just a clever way to organize the tour into several groups).
We joined our tour guide for a slow stroll along candlelit paths as we made our way to the estate. As we walked up the slight incline, we caught a glimpse of slave quarters, servants quarters, and a blacksmith shop. Our guide shared stories of what Christmas would have been like for the workers on the five farms that comprised George Washington’s total of 8000 acres.
Just a short walk further and we had reached the main house where George and Martha Washington lived for many years welcoming guests on many occasions.
We entered from the side where we met a servant and a slave (everyone on the tour did an excellent job of staying in character) who were preparing a holiday meal and were sure to wish us a Happy Christmas.
After our greeting, we continued into the house where we saw the private quarters of George and Martha Washington as well as the many bedrooms in the house where guests would stay, especially during the holiday season.
We especially loved learning the history of the 12 days of Christmas. Christmas Day was actually the start of the season when most people would spend the day in church recognizing the holiness of the day. The celebration would continue each night for 12 nights with the season ending on December 6th. That last night, also known as the “twelfth night” was a common night for weddings as families and friends would already be gathered (and it’s when George and Martha got married).
We learned all of this from Martha Washington (or, rather a lovely woman who has obviously been playing Martha for quite some time). She shared some insights on the house and the holidays and although we couldn’t take pictures in the house, we left with a recipe for a Twelfth Night cake.
After the tour, we headed toward the outdoor bonfires for some spice cookies and apple cider and even caught a glimpse of a camel similar to the one George Washington had on his farm.
After the outdoor festivities, we headed back to the visitor center where could partake in more modern facilities, listen to period music, and see something that couldn’t be seen in the house.
The one thing missing from the house was Christmas trees! The German tradition of the tannenbaum, or Christmas tree, didn’t really become popular until the early 1800s. And even though you won’t find one in the house, you’ll see plenty of beautifully decorated trees throughout the visitor center.
Mount Vernon provided complimentary tickets for me and my family for the Mount Vernon by Candlelight tour.