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A Time of Celebration

"The fiddler ... stood with half closed eyes and head thrown back with one leg keeping time ...."

Little is known about the celebration of Christmas at Monticello. In Jefferson's papers there are occasional references to mince pies, the exchange of gifts, and paying visits to neighbors. For the African-American families, the Christmas season was a time between---a few days when the winter work halted and mirth became the order of the day, when families reunited through visits and normal routines were set aside. In 1808 Davy Hern traveled all the way to Washington to spend the holidays with his wife, Fanny, who worked in the President's House kitchen. Two days before Christmas in 1813, Bedford Davy, Bartlett, Nace, and Eve set out for Poplar Forest, ninety miles away, to visit their relatives and friends.

A letter written by Jefferson's granddaughter Mary Randolph to her sister two days after Christmas in 1821 captures a moment during the year's only long break from the routine of labor:

"This Christmas has passed away hitherto as quietly as I wished and 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 disagreeable business that we generally have to do and except catching the sound of a fiddle yesterday on my way to the smokehouse and getting a glimpse of the fiddler as he stood with half closed eyes and head thrown back with one leg keeping time to his own scraping in the midst of a circle of attentive and admiring auditors I have not seen or heard any thing like Christmas gambols."

That fiddler was most likely Beverly Hemings. Soon after this holiday he left Monticello with his sister, Harriet, never to return.

For Hemings's uncle Robert Hemings, the holiday season marked his emancipation. Formerly Jefferson's personal servant and then hired to a Richmond physician, he arranged to secure his freedom on Christmas Eve 1794. Hemings's plans to marry an enslaved woman living in Richmond probably fueled his desire to have his freedom commence at the beginning of the season of mirth.


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