Christmas Traditions in Our Nation’s Capital


One of my former colleagues posted this article from a pamphlet he picked up at the Mary Surratt House Museum titled, “Christmas of Yesterday: A History of Our Treasured Traditions and Holiday Customs.” (If you recall, Mary Surratt was an alleged member of the Abraham Lincoln assassination conspiracy and holds the dubious distinction of being the first woman executed by the U.S. government. She was hung for treason in July 1865.)

Some of us who are natives or have lived in and around Washington, D.C. (Congress on July 16, 1790, declared the “District of Columbia” as our nation’s capital). may already be familiar with some stories about Christmas traditions just because of our close proximity to The White House.  Others, maybe not so much.  So this post is intended especially for those of you who may be interested in Christmas traditions in our nation’s capital during the Georgian (1714-1837) and Victorian (1837-1901) Eras.  I added parenthetical and bracketed information to further clarify the times covered within the quotes from the Surratt Museum pamphlet.

[Our second president {1797-1801} and first vice president {1789-1797}], John Adams, inaugurated the custom of holiday parties at the White House. The Oval Room was decorated with greens, and the tables were laden with cakes, punch, and other refreshments, while the children sang, danced, and played with the Adams’ grandchildren.

“Under Thomas Jefferson [President from 1801-1809],  Christmas parties became adult affairs where his guests feasted on imported cheeses, preserved fruits, and other delicacies and where vintage wines accompanied the meal. His six grandchildren wandered among the dignitaries, Congressmen, and Ambassadors, an informality which shocked many in Washington society.

“When Andrew Jackson came to the White House in 1829, he was in mourning for his wife; but his family put up a stocking on a White House mantel and the morning found it stuffed with small presents – including a corncob pipe. His nieces and nephews also had stockings filled with cakes, candles, nuts, and fruits.

“Because President Jackson had been raised as an orphan, he threw a party for other orphans. Among the treats were ices shaped like apples and pears to eat, and snowballs made of starch-powdered cotton to throw.”

“The first Christmas Tree entered the White House in the 1850s during the administration of Franklin Pierce (1853-1857). This official presidential sanction helped to popularize the custom in America.”

Our 16th president’s young son, Tad, reportedly rounded up street waifs during his father’s administration (1861-1865), and brought them home for turkey dinners.”

“By 1885,  President Grover Cleveland (1885-1889) had added new-fangled electric lights to the White House tree.”

“The tradition of Christmas season receptions spread throughout the area into homes not so grand as the White House.”

“On New Year’s Day, our early Presidents generally held an open house in the best democratic tradition. It was open to all, no matter the political and social differences.”

Even the simplest of homes in nearby Southern Maryland (where I grew up and still reside), could be simply decorated with pine, cedar, crowsfoot, running cedar, laurel, bay, and holly from the nearby woods. Ivy and rosemary were, surprisingly, the most prized Christmas decorations of the Victorian era. Fresh fruits from the Washington Markets, abundant Osage oranges, and pine cones and pods could all be added to the arrangements. Some accounts of the period refer to cedar boughs being dusted with flour to achieve the ‘snow’ effect that we spray on today.

“Mistletoe, shot from trees, abounded. New Englanders had to pay for mistletoe for it grows only in warmer climes, but Marylanders found it abundant in neighboring woods.”

“The proper Victorian was not too staid to enjoy a stolen kiss! And there was a proper way to kiss under the mistletoe. As the man kissed the lady, he was obligated to pluck a berry from the branch and present it to the lady. This practice continued until the berries were gone. The mistletoe then lost its power of love, and no more kisses could be had.”

Huh. That seems to be the Victorian version of the expression, “if you snooze, you lose.”

“Many a Christmas romance started under the mistletoe and led to a Christmas wedding the next year. The season was a popular time for weddings because family and friends traditionally gathered at Christmas and it was easier to get everyone together. The night before the wedding, a party was held at the bride’s house. The next morning the wedding procession began. The days following the wedding were filled with parties, for the bride and groom of the early and mid-19th century did not take honeymoon trips.”

“But, back to our customs…In the nearby hearth burned the traditional Yule log – or Christmas log as it was called in the south. This had been an English custom, and the Southerners stuck with their English ties.” [The Yule Log was believed to bring beneficial magic and was kept burning for at least twelve hours and sometimes as long as twelve days, warming both the house and those who resided within. When the fire of the Yule Log was finally quenched, a small fragment of the wood would be saved and used to light the next year’s log. It was also believed that as long as the Yule Log burned, the house would be protected from witchcraft. The ashes that remained from the sacred Yule Log were scattered over fields to bring fertility or cast into wells to purify and sweeten the water. Sometimes, the ashes were used in the creation of various charms…to free cattle from vermin, for example, or to ward off hailstorms.]

“One practice on the plantations called for the Master to allow a Christmas rest for the slaves. The holiday lasted as long as the Christmas log burned, so slaves were often caught sprinkling water on it to keep it burning slowly.”

“A Victorian Christmas was bright and cheerful, and the decorations and parties were as simple or as elaborate as the people cared to make them.”

But, no matter the year, where you live, or how you and yours celebrate this season, let us all not forget, the true meaning and its reason!

Wishing everyone a Very Merry Christmas!

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