As it is for many people today, Christmas was for Thomas Jefferson a time for family and friends and for celebrations, or in Jefferson's word, "merriment." In 1762, he described Christmas as "the day of greatest mirth and jollity." Although no documents exist to tell us how, or if, Jefferson decorated Monticello for the holidays, Jefferson noted the festive scene created by his grandchildren. On Christmas Day 1809, he said of eight-year-old grandson Francis Wayles Eppes (shown at right): "he is at this moment running about with his cousins bawling out 'a merry christmas' 'a christmas gift' Etc."
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, becoming widespread only 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 in December 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 accomodated to the season of mince pies." Music also filled the scene. The Monticello music library included the Christmas favorite "Adeste Fideles."
For African Americans at Monticello, the holiday season represented a time between — a few days of celebration but also the possibility of increased responsibility and work. The Christmas season came to represent hours when families reunited through visits and when normal routines were set aside. In 1808, David Hern traveled all the way to Washington where his wife Frances worked at the President’s House to be with her for the holidays. Two days before the Christmas of 1813, Bedford David, Bartlet, Nace, and Eve set out for Poplar Forest to visit relatives and friends.
During the holidays, wild game and other fresh meats supplemented the usual rations of pork, fish, and cornmeal. Gills of molasses sweetened holiday fare and music lifted spirits not fatigued by a harvest or by another full cycle of work in the fields, shops, and living quarters of Monticello.
No first-hand accounts of the holidays by a member of the Monticello enslaved community exists, but enslaved people elsewhere frequently recalled that Christmas was the only holiday they knew. Many cherished memories of gathering apples and nuts, burning Yule logs, and receiving special tokens of food and clothing.
Read more about Christmas Holiday Traditions among Monticello’s Enslaved Community »
Celebration of Christmas
1762 December 25. (Jefferson to John Page). "This very day, to others the day of greatest mirth and jollity, sees me overwhelmed with more and greater misfortunes than have befallen a descendant of Adam for these thousand years past I am sure; and perhaps, after excepting Job, since the creation of the world."
1779 December 25. "Gave Christmas gifts 48/."
1791 January 22. (Maria Jefferson to Jefferson). "Last Christmas I gave sister the 'Tales of the Castle,' and she made me a present of the 'Observer,' a little ivory box, and one of her drawings; and to Jenny she gave 'Paradise Lost,' and some other things."
1796 January 1. (Martha Jefferson Randolph to Jefferson). "We have spent the hollidays and indeed every day in such a perpetual round of visiting and recieving visits that I have not had a moment to my self since I came down."
1799 January 19. (Thomas Mann Randolph to Jefferson). "We remained at Monticello after you left us till Christmas day on which we paid a visit to George Divers with as many as we could carry; Virginia, Nancy and Ellen—we passed the Christmas with Divers, P. Carr, & Mrs. Trist; assisted at a ball in Charlottesville on the first day of the year and returned on the 4th. to Monticello where we found our children (whom I had not neglected to visit) in the most florid health."
1808 January 8. (Ellen Wayles Randolph to Jefferson). "Sister Ann spent her Christmas in the North Garden with Cousin Evelina."
1808 December 19. (Jefferson to Thomas Jefferson Randolph). "[W]ill there be such an intermission of your lectures about Christmas as that you can come & pass a few days here [Washington D.C.]?"
1808 December 20. (Jefferson to Ellen Wayles Randolph). "I have written to Jefferson [Thomas Jefferson Randolph] if there is sufficient intermission in his lectures at Christmas, to come & pass his free interval with us."
1809 December 25. (Jefferson to John Wayles Eppes). "He [Francis Wayles Eppes] is at this moment running about with his cousins bawling out 'a merry christmas' 'a christmas gift' Etc. ... with the compliments of the season accept assurances of my constant affection & respect."
1809 December 29. (Jefferson to Anne Cary Randolph Bankhead). "Mr. Bankhead I suppose is seeking a merry Christmas in all the wit and merriments of Coke Littleton."
1809 December 30. (Jefferson to Thomas Jefferson Randolph). "[B]ut I presume you have lately seen them [family members] as it was understood you meant to pass your Christmas with them."
1810 December 14. (John Wayles Eppes to Jefferson). "When I parted with Francis I promised either to call for him or send for him at Christmas."
1813 December 25. (Jefferson to Mary Walker Lewis). "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 accomodated to the season of mince pies."
1815 August 5. (Jefferson to William Wirt). "You ask some account of mr [Patrick] Henry's mind, information & manners in 59–60. when I first became acquainted with him. we met at Nat. Dandridge’s, in Hanover, about the Christmas of that winter, and passed perhaps a fortnight together at the revelries of the neighborhood & season."
1817 December 18. (Jefferson to Joseph Cabell). "I have been detained a month by my affairs here [Poplar Forest] but shall depart in three days & eat my Christmas dinner at Monticello."
1819 January 1. (John Wayles Eppes to Francis Wayles Eppes). "The old mode of keeping christmas seems to be going generally out of fashion—It has changed very much since my recollection Formerly all classes of society kept it as a kind of feast—It is now merely kept by labouring people—all other classes of society resume their accustomed occupations, after christmas day—Perhaps no period for mirth and relaxation can with greater propriety be chosen by the labouring class of society—Their labours for the year have ceased and before commencing the new year they devote to mirth and relaxation a few days at the close of the year—"
1826 January 2. (Ellen Wayles Randolph Coolidge to Martha Jefferson Randolph). "Christmas has not been very merry for me, & passed pretty much as other times. I had the satisfaction of cont[ri]buting ten dollars towards making up a little purse for Maria Greenwood, which the ladies of the King’s Chapel, (the Church in which Mr Greenwood preaches,) proposed as a Christmas box for her. my mother, grandmother & sister-in-law gave each as much, & when the sum was completed it amounted to 400 dollars we presented in the name of the ladies of Mr Greenwood’s church; elsewhere these might appear to be something degrading to the person receiving such donations, but in Boston you are previleged to offer any thing to your minister or his wife, who receive these presents as matters of custom & would be accused of most unbecoming & unchristianlike-like pride, if they hesitated or shewed any repugnance in accepting such offerings."
1827 January 5. (Joseph Coolidge to Nicholas Philip Trist). "[T]ell Cornelia the box has not arrived, we were compelled to eat Christmas dinner without her ham."
1827 January 7. (Ellen Wayles Randolph Coolidge to Virginia Jefferson Randolph Trist). "Christmas week was quite a merry one for [Septimia Anne Randolph], & she has been to four parties (& dancing parties too) since Christmas day. this, you will say, is not making good use of her time, but it is a privileged season, & she has gone back very quietly to her lessons. one of these parties was given by her particular friend Miss Lucia Swett, a very good girl with whom I like her to associate. Septimia was pronounced the prettiest girl in the room, & one of the best dressed, & yet her whole equipment cost a square of muslin, (one of mama’s turbans) and 7 cents to a mantua-maker for a fashionable body to he[r] black silk frock. the thing which set her off was having her hair curled behind in three tier of 'gros boucle' which gave her head a very stylish air. George goes on very well at school, & was invited to all the parties, but could not be prevailed on to go to one. the only amusement he seems at all to care about is skating on Frog Pond, where there is at least small danger of his being drowned."
Christmas in the Enslaved Community
1790 December. (Nicholas Lewis). "To 2 1/2 Gallons Whiskey at Christmass for the Negroes."
1797 December 2. (Jefferson to Maria Jefferson Eppes). "Tell Mr. Eppes that I leave orders for a sufficient force to begin and finish his house during the week after the Christmas holidays; so that his people may come safely after New-year's day."
1808 November 17. (Edmund Bacon to Jefferson). "Davy Has petitioned for leave to come to see his wife at Christmass."
1808 November 22. (Jefferson to Bacon). "I approve of your permitting Davy to come [to Washington] at Christmas."
1810 August 17. (Jefferson to William Chamberlayne). "I agreed to take them [hired slaves] at that price, and they were to come to me after the Christmas Hollidays when their time with him was out."
1813 December 24. (Jefferson to Patrick Gibson). "We shall begin to send [flour] from hence immediately after the Christmas holidays."
1814 December 23. (Jefferson to Jeremiah Goodman). "Davy, Bartlet, Nace & Eve set out this morning for Poplar Forest. let them start on their return with the hogs the day after your holidays end, which I suppose will be on Wednesday night [Dec. 28], so that they may set out Thursday morning."
1818 December 24. (Joel Yancey to Jefferson). "Your two Boys Dick & Moses arrived here on Monday night last [Dec. 21] both on Horse-back without a pass, but Said they had your permission to visit their friends here this Xmass."
1821 December 27. (Mary Jefferson Randolph to Virginia Jefferson Randolph). "[T]his Christmas has passed away hitherto as quietly as I wished & a great deal more so than I expected I have not had a single application to write passes or done or seen any of the little disagreable business that we generally have to do & except catching the sound of a fiddle yesterday on my way to the smokehouse & getting a glimpse of the fiddler as he stood with half closed eyes & head thrown back with one foot keeping time to his own scraping in the midst of a circle of attentive & admiring auditors I have not seen or heard any thing like Christmas gambols & what is yet more extraordinary have not ordered the death of a single turkey or helped to do execution on a solitary mince pie so you see you lost nothing by being on the road this week."
Christmas as a Time of Reckoning
1768 May 15. "Agreed with Mr. Moore that he shall level 250 f. square on the top of the mountain at the N. E. end by Christmas, for which I am to give 180 bushels of wheat, and 24 bushels of corn, 12 of which are not to be paid till corn comes in."
1769 September 23. "R. Sorrels is to mawl 8000 rails for me by Christmas."
1773 March 31. "The Debit of D. Minor’s acct.this day is £136–16–4. The credits as collected in a hurry are £74–15. Gave him my promisory note for £62–1–4, the balance with interest from last Christmas."
1775 February 8. "The best way is to get all the ploughing for the succeeding crop of corn finished before Christmas, & so in all the open parts of the winter be fallowing for wheat."
1778 October 9. "Bought of Charles Goodman a buck fawn. It is to be brought home between Christmas & blossoming time. If I fetch it soon after Christmas I am to pay 40."
1792 September 23. (Memorandums for Manoah Clarkson). "Make out at Christmas a list of all the stock, distinguishing the cattle into calves, yearlings, 2 year olds, 3 year olds, cows and steers, the hogs into sows, fattening hogs, shoats, and pigs, the sheep into yews and wethers."
1795 January 10. (Memorandum from Eli Alexander, endorsed by Jefferson). "Stock. Shadwell Christmas 94."
1796 August 31. "Bought a white horse of Joshua Burras for £11. paiable at Christmas."
1800 December 22. (Richard Richardson to Jefferson). "... till I see Mr powel or hear wheather he is a Comeing. if he does not I will Return direcly after Christmas."
1801 January 9. (Jefferson to Thomas Mann Randolph). "I left Monticello on Monday the 24th. Nov. from which time there were 4. weeks to Christmas, and the hands ordered to be with Lilly that morning (except I think two) and according to his calculation & mine 3. or 4. acres a week should have been cleared."
1803 December 19. (Jefferson to Thomas Mann Randolph). "[The militia] would arrive at N. Orleans the 6th. or 7th. if on the 6th. we shall hear of it Christmas night."
1808 December 11. (Jefferson to James Dinsmore). "[T]he plane irons, sand paper, 4. bell levers, & 2. bells will be sent by Davy's cart which will come here at Christmas."
1808 December 19. (Jefferson to Bacon). "[T]wo tons of nailrod left Phila the 12th. of this month, & will probably be at Richmond about Christmas."
1810 February 28. (Jefferson to Elizabeth Trist). "[W]ithin 10. days Monticello will begin to enrobe itself in all it's bloom. we are now all out in our gardens & fields. since Christmas I have taken my farms into my own hands."
1818 May 3. (Jefferson to John Wayles Eppes). "He [Mr. Dashiell] is an excellent teacher as I judged, at his examination, by the progress and correctness of three boys particularly who had begun with him at Christmas."
1819. "... if 180. yds. [of outer clothing] are wove by Xmas. we must get from the store 52 1/2 yds."
1820 December 12. (Jefferson to Bacon). "Mr Yancey & myself conclude it will be best to send the pork of this place [Poplar Forest] to Monticello before Christmas hoping you will recieve this letter on Sunday the 17th. ... and the waggon may start Thursday morning with that of this place & be at Monticello Christmas eve."
1822 October 21. (Jefferson to Bernard Peyton). "[M]r T. E. Randolph assures me he will pay up the balance of his rent at Christmas which will then amount to 250."
1827 January 5. (Joseph Coolidge to Nicholas Philip Trist). "[W]rite to me soon: tell Cornelia the box has not arrived, we were compelled to eat Christmas dinner without her ham."
1827 January 8. (Ellen Wayles Randolph Coolidge to Virginia Jefferson Randolph Trist). "Christmas week was quite a merry one for [Septimia Randolph], & she has been to four parties (& dancing parties too) since Christmas day. this, you will say, is not making good use of her time, but it is a privileged season, & she has gone back very quietly to her lessons."
- Mindy Keyes Black, 11/1996; updated with text by Elizabeth Chew and Dianne Swann-Wright, 11/2006
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