John Trumbull (American painter, 1756-1843) Portrait of Thomas Jefferson (1743-1826) 1788
Christmas was for Jefferson a time for family & friends & for celebrations, or in Jefferson's word, "merriment." In 1762, he described Christmas as "the day of greatest mirth & jollity."
Although no documents exist to tell us how, or if, Jefferson decorated his 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: "He is at this moment running about with his cousins bawling out 'a merry christmas' 'a christmas gift' Etc."
During Jefferson’s time, socializing & special food would have been the focal points of the winter celebrations rather than decorations or lavish gifts.
References indicate that at Monticello, as throughout Virginia, mince pie — filled with apples, raisins, beef suet, & spices — was a traditional holiday dinner favorite. Jefferson wrote to Mary Walker Lewis on December 25, 1813: "I will take the liberty of sending for some barrels of apples, & 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 when the winter work halted & mirth became the order of the day. The Christmas season came to represent hours when families reunited through visits & when normal routines were set aside. In 1808, Davy Hern traveled all the way to Washington where his wife Fanny worked at the President’s House to be with her for the holidays. Two days before the Christmas of 1813, Bedford Davy, Bartlet, Nace, & Eve set out for Poplar Forest to visit relatives & friends.
During the holidays, women adorned tables with wild game. Freshly slaughtered meats supplemented the usual rations of pork & cornmeal. Gills of molasses sweetened holiday fare & music lifted spirits not fatigued by a harvest but by another full cycle of work in the fields, shops, & living quarters of Monticello.
Enslaved people frequently recalled that Christmas was the only holiday they knew. Many cherished memories of gathering apples & nuts, burning Yule logs, & receiving special tokens of food & clothing.
1805 Gilbert Stuart (American painter, 1755-1828) Portrait of Thomas Jefferson (1743-1826)
Celebration of Christmas (Primary Source References)
1762 December 25. (Jefferson to John Page). "This very day, to others the day of greatest mirth & jollity, sees me overwhelmed with more & greater misfortunes then have befallen a descendant of Adam for these thousand years past I am sure; & perhaps, after exception 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' & she made me a present of the 'Observer' a little ivory box, & one of her drawings; & to Jenny she gave 'Paradise Lost' & some other things."
1796 January 1. (Martha Jefferson Randolph to Jefferson). "We have spent hollidays & indeed every day in such a perpetual round of visiting & receiving 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 in which we paid a visit to George Divers with as many as we could carry, Virginia, Nancy & Ellen--We passed the Christmas with Divers, P. Carr, & Mrs. Trist, assisted at a ball in Charlottesville on the first day of the year & 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. "Sister Ann spent her Christmas in the North Garden with Cousin Evelina." (Ellen Wayles Randolph to Jefferson).
1808 December 19. (Jefferson to Thomas Jefferson Randolph). "Will 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 &c...With the compliments of the season accept assurances of my constant affection & respect."
1809 December 29. (Jefferson to Anne Bankhead). "Mr. Bankhead I suppose is seeking a Merry Christmas in all the wit & merriments of Coke Littleton."
1809 December 30. (Jefferson to Thomas Jefferson Randolph). "But 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, & 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 1759-60, when I first became acquainted with him. We met at Nathanl. Dandridge's, in Hanover, about the Christmas of that winter, & 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 may affairs here [Popular 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 & relaxation can with greater propriety be chosen by have ceased & before commencing the new year they devote to mirth & relaxation a few days at the close of the year."
Portrait of President Thomas Jefferson (1743-1826) by Revolutionary War hero Tadeusz Kosciuszko (1746-1817)
Christmas in the Enslaved Community (Primary Source References)
1790 December. (Nicholas Lewis, Monticello steward, accounts in Ledger 1767-1770). "To 2 1/2 Gallons Whiskey at Christmass for the Negroes."
1797 December 2. (Jefferson to Maria J. Eppes). "Tell Mr. Eppes that I have orders for a sufficient force to begin & finish his house during the winter after the Christmas holidays; so that his people may come safely after New year's day."
1808 November 17.' (Edmund Bacon to Thomas Jefferson). "Davy Has Petitioned for leave to come to see his wife at Christmass."
1808 November 22. (Jefferson to Edmund Bacon). "I approve of your permitting Davy to come [to Washington] at Christmas."
1810 August 17. (Jefferson to W. Chamberlayne). "I agreed to take them [hired slaves] at that price & 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, overseer). "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, Poplar Forest, 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). "This 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 disagreeable 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 wo you see you lost nothing by being on the road this week."
Charles Peale Polk (American artist, 1765-1822) Portrait of Thomas Jefferson (1743-1826)
Christmas as a Time of Reckoning (Primary Source References)
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, & 24 bushels of corn, 12 of which are of 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 L136-16-4. The credits as collected in a hurry are L74-15. Gave him my promissory note for L62-1-4, 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. (Jefferson memo to Mr. Clarkson, Monticello overseer). "Make out at Christmas a list of all the stock, distinguishing the cattle into calves, yearlings, 2 year olds, 3 year olds, cows & steers, the hogs into sows, fatttening hogs, shoats, & pigs, the sheep into yews & wethers."
1795 January 10. (Jefferson annotated a list of livestock at Shadwell, probably in the hand of Eli Alexander). "Stock. Shadwell Christmas 94."
1796 August 31. "Bought a white horse of Joshua Burras for L11. Paiable at Christmas."
1800 December 22. (Richard Richardson to Jefferson). "...till I see Mr. powel or hear wheather he is Comeing. if he does not I will Return directly after Christmas..."
1809 January 9. (Jefferson to Thomas Mann Randolph). "I left Monticello on Monday the 24th. of Nov. from which time there were 4 weeks to Christmas, & the hands ordered to be with Lilly that morning (except I think two) & according to his calculation & mine 3. or 4. acres a week should have been cleared."
1803 December 19. (Jefferson to Thomas Mann Randolph). "If on the 6th. we shall hear of it [militia arrival at N. Orleans] Christmas night..."
1808 December 11. (Jefferson to James Dinsmore). "The plane irons, sandpaper, 4. bell levers, & 2. bells will be sent by Davy's cart which will come here at Christmas."
1808 December 19. (Jefferson to Edmund Bacon) "Two tons of nailrod left Phila the 12th of this month, & will probably be at Richmond about Christmas."
1810 February 28. (Jefferson to Elizabeth Trist). "Within ten 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 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 & correctness of three boys particularly who had begun with him at Christmas."
1819. "...if 100. yards['outer clothing'] are wove by Xmas. we must get from the store 52 1/2 yds."
1820 December 12. (Jefferson to Edmund 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 receive this letter on Sunday the 17th...& the waggon may start Thursday morning with that of this place & be at Monticello Christmas Eve."
1822 October 21. (Jefferson to Bernard Peyton). "Mr. T.E. Randolph assures me he will pay up the balance of his at Christmas which will then amount to 250."
1827 January 5. (Joseph Coolidge to Nicholas Philip Trist). "write 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 her, & 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."
This article is based on the research of Mindy Keyes Black, Monticello Department of Development & Public Affairs, November 1996; Updated November 2006 with text by Elizabeth Chew & Dianne Swann-Wright. For much more information, click this link.