Christmas celebrations have changed radically since George Washington’s presidency. The new republic that Washington had guided into being was only beginning to create itself as a nation and had little unifying cultural identity. The 13 states differed significantly among themselves, including in how their new citizens observed—or ignored—Christmas.
With the holiday season upon us, it seems appropriate to look back at visitors’ accounts of George and Martha Washington’s Potomac River plantation, Mount Vernon. The Christmas season—stretching from December 24th to January 6th—was widely considered a time to gather with family and friends. As the Washingtons’ estate and reputation grew, visitors came year-round and included not only immediate family and local friends but more distant relatives and strangers with and without letters of introduction.
The origin of Thanksgiving Day in America is a bit of a moving target. Tradition has it that Thanksgiving has been handed down to us from the Pilgrims and friendly Wampanoag Indians, who joined together for a celebratory feast in November 1621 to give thanks for a bountiful harvest. In grade schools throughout the United States, construction-paper silhouettes of Pilgrim hats, Indian headdresses, turkeys, and cornucopias have withstood many changings of the generational guard as part of November’s classroom décor.
At a time of the year when reflection is unavoidable, I am consistently drawn back to the story of the early years of Mount Vernon’s preservation. To me, this story is a testament to the strength of American determination, and a reminder of the beliefs and qualities that bind us together.