Featured image: George Washington and Family by Thomas Pritchard Rossiter, 1858-1860.
by Helen Breen
The dramatic painting of “Washington Crossing the Delaware” launching a surprise attack on the Hessian foe on December 25, 1776 is firmly embedded in the American psyche. His bold move resulted in our victory in Trenton. Troops of Marblehead mariners, under the command of Colonel John Glover, played a major role in the surprise attack. Yet, the suffering that American forces endured that winter, and the next one that followed at the Valley Forge, comprised the dark night of the Revolutionary War. Washington, however, would live to see a better Christmas years later.
Washington’s prayer at Valley Forge in the winter of 1777, painted by H. Brueckner, engraved by John C. McRae; Library of Congress
How far removed was the life George Washington could have enjoyed in the luxury of his Mount Vernon estate where holiday fires burned brightly. A country squire, happily married to the widow Martha Custis, Washington became a father to her two small children and later, the guardian of her grandchildren. Among his papers was a Christmas list which he composed for five year old Jacky and three year old Patty. Included were a “bird on bellows,” a tea set, and waxed doll. Warm memories of life at Mount Vernon must have comforted the General during the long winters of the war.
A man of quiet tastes and family interests, his Potomac plantation was the hearthstone of his world. During the bitter winters of the Revolutionary War, Martha had gone north to live in her husband’s quarters. But her dream of having George home for the holiday seemed endlessly delayed.
Although British General Cornwallis had surrendered to American forces at Yorktown, Virginia in October 1781, the peace was not signed in Paris until September 3, 1783. The American army was in limbo without pay or provisions. Only the troops’ respect for their leader prevented open rebellion.
A tearful leave taking of Washington and his men at last occurred after news reached our shores of the Treaty’s acceptance. As much as he wished to return home, his duties called him to Princeton, then to West Point and New York. At times his hope of spending the holidays at Mount Vernon seemed dim. The people of Baltimore, Philadelphia, and Annapolis also wanted to fete him with endless dinners, speeches, and fireworks.
Meanwhile, the days grew short. Martha, her family, and their household had prepared a gala celebration, the first in many years. Southerners had enjoyed Yuletide festivities long before they were sanctioned in the North. Finally, about mid afternoon on Christmas Eve of 1783, the General and his entourage approached the west gate of Mount Vernon.
The house was festooned with greens, the tables were laden with food and wine, the burning tapers reflected in the sparking silver and crystal. The War was over and the father of the family had returned safely. Certainly, no man deserved such a reward more. George Washington was home for Christmas!
While no record survives of what was served on Christmas Eve 1783, we do have an account of a Christmas dinner served at Mount Vernon in the 1790s:
“Christmas Dinner at Mount Vernon: An Onion Soup Call’d the King’s Soup, Oysters on the Half Shell, Broiled Salt Roe Herring, Boiled Rockfish, Roast Beef and Yorkshire Pudding, Mutton Chops, Roast Suckling Pig, Roast Turkey with Chestnut Stuffing, Round of Cold Boiled Beef with Horse-radish Sauce, Cold Baked Virginia Ham, Lima Beans, Baked Acorn Squash, Baked Celery with Slivered Almonds, Hominy Pudding, Candied Sweet Potatoes, Cantaloupe Pickle, Spiced Peaches in Brandy, Spiced Cranberries, Mincemeat Pie, Apple Pie, Cherry Pie, Chess Tarts, Blancmange, Plums in Wine Jelly, Snowballs, Indian Pudding, Great Cake, Ice Cream, Plum Pudding, Fruits, Nuts, Raisins, Port, Madeira.” (American Heritage Magazine 1964)