How we celebrate Christmas has changed since Thomas Jefferson and the Founding Fathers would have enjoyed the holiday. But often it’s the remembrance of simpler traditions and the connection to the past that makes holidays like Christmas so special.
Christmas at Monticello, Thomas Jefferson’s incredible legacy and homestead, is a magical time of year. Combining the historic traditions with new ways of celebrating, you’ll see the season in a whole new light by learning what it meant to spend Christmas at Monticello.
Holiday Celebrations at Monticello
Aside from being a historic site, Monticello is an incredible resource for research and archaeology. The Monticello website explains what Christmas at Monticello used to look like:
During Jefferson’s time, holiday celebrations were much more modest than those we know today. Socializing and special food would have been the focal points of the winter celebrations rather than decorations or lavish gifts. The customs that we think of today as traditional ways of celebrating Christmas, particularly the decorating of evergreen trees and the hanging of stockings, derived from a variety of national traditions and evolved through the course of the 19th century, only becoming widespread in the 1890s.
References indicate that at Monticello, as throughout Virginia, mince pie — filled with apples, raisins, beef suet, and spices — was a traditional holiday dinner favorite. Jefferson wrote to Mary Walker Lewis on December 25, 1813: “I will take the liberty of sending for some barrels of apples, and if a basket of them can now be sent by the bearer they will be acceptable as accommodated to the season of mince pies.”
Music also filled the scene. The Monticello music library included the Christmas favorite “Adeste Fideles.”
African Americans at Monticello
There was an unusual element to Christmas at Monticello—unusual for us, today, anyway. The property was built and thrived through the use of slave labor. The Monticello website also gives insight into how African Americans would celebrate Christmas at Monticello:
For African-Americans at Monticello, the holiday season represented a time between—a few days when the winter work halted and mirth became the order of the day. The Christmas season came to represent hours when families reunited through visits and when normal routines were set aside. In 1808, Davy Hern traveled all the way to Washington where his wife Fanny worked at the President’s House to be with her for the holidays. Two days before the Christmas of 1813, Bedford Davy, Bartlet, Nace, and Eve set out for Poplar Forest to visit relatives and friends.
Every year, Christmas at Monticello lasts for a whole season, with workshops and special displays open to the public. Here’s this year’s lineup:
November 28-30 & December 2, 3, 4, 5, 6, 7
These ever-popular workshops, in their 29th year, produce a gratifying and tangible end product: a beautiful holiday wreath. $75 (all materials included)
Sunday Nov. 29, 9am-4:30pm
Celebrate the beginning of the holiday season at Monticello’s Second Annual Holiday Open House. FREE!
Saturday Dec. 5, 7-9am
This family-oriented 5k begins at the East Walk of Monticello. Kids 12 and under can enjoy the Deck the Halls Kids Dash, a quarter mile loop around the West Lawn!
December 11-12 18-23, 26-30 at 5:15pm, 5:30pm & 5:45pm each evening
These small-group house tours, which include the Dome Room, offer visitors an intimate look at how the holidays were celebrated in Jefferson’s time, plus the rare opportunity to experience Monticello after dark.
December 5, 6, 12, 13, 2-4pm
Kids and grownups alike will enjoy this icing-intense program. Try your hand at creating your own architectural masterpiece, just like Mr. Jefferson! Fuel your creativity with hot cider and cookies. Advance reservations required.
After spending a day at Monticello, come back for a relaxing stay at Prospect Hill. Happy holidays!
Photo: Christmas at Monticello / Elizabeth / Flickr