Monday, December 22, 2014

Southern History Department's Book of the Month: Christmas With the Washingtons: Being a Special Account of Traditional Rites Observed in Virginia . . .

Christmas With the Washingtons:
Being a Special Account of Traditional Rites Observed in Virginia . . .
Olive Bailey, with drawings by Worth Bailey

Not many modern readers would associate George Washington with Christmas. If we think of Washington in winter, we’re more likely to remember the painting of the General praying in the snow at Valley Forge. But Olive Bailey’s delightful Christmas with the Washingtons gives us a look at the Christmas season of the late 18th century in America and how it would have been celebrated by the upper classes at such manors as Belvoir, Westover, and—of course—Mount Vernon.

Far from limiting herself to Washington the President and Founding Father, Bailey starts with young George and tracks him through various Christmases, explaining as much as the historical record allows of where and how he spent them. As a young man in 1751, Washington was on the deck of the ship Industry in the seas around the Barbadoes and his Christmas dinner consisted of “Irish goose which had be[en hung] for the purpose some Weeks.” Definitely not our idea of a dinner that would be cleared by the Health Department. Yet Washington survived this holiday offering, not to mention many another that would cause a modern nutritionist to exclaim in dismay.

As I read through this brief book (less than 50 pages) I had to wonder if the memory of the sufferings and deprivations of Valley Forge gave extra relish to some of the dishes Washington encountered later in his career. Our 21st century dietary habits are the impetus for many a New Year’s resolution to start a diet, but compared to the partygoers of the late 1700s, we are the rankest of amateurs in the field of excess. One has only to read the recipe for Martha Washington’s “Great Cake,” which begins with “Take 40 eggs & divide the whites from the yolks” and calls for “4 pounds of butter,” to have an attack of indigestion without eating a mouthful.

The Prayer at Valley Forge, Arnold Friberg 
But the book is not just about the food of the era. Bailey vividly describes the sights and sounds of the Christmas celebrations in progress: “Once again they heard the carefree, unrestrained sounds of Christmas—pistol shots (!), firecrackers, rousing song . . .” There are lists of toys, books, and other gifts for children, many of which had to be ordered from London. Think of the time that would pass between sending the order and actually receiving the items, and then compare that to our era of ordering online with next-day delivery.

I had never thought of George Washington as a “festive” person. Many of his portraits, especially in later life, are rather grim-looking, and Bailey does tell us that “as Washington grew older he took to writing letters on Christmas Day. Could it be his study was a quiet stronghold against the numerous loquacious guests?” Mount Vernon was apparently a pivot of social life in Virginia in those days, to the point where Washington lamented that it had become like a “ ‘well resorted tavern’! No wonder General and Mrs. Washington formed the habit of retiring to their apartments early—it was probably the only opportunity to talk of their own affairs.” But I did find that this book added some lively color to that segment of American history for me. And after reading some of the recipes in this book, no one need feel too guilty about indulging in a few seasonal treats. Happy Holidays!

Mary Anne Ellis
Southern History Department
Central Library

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