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I cannot think of a more wonderful way to begin the holiday season than to be transported back in time to the festive world of Mount Vernon. Located ten miles south of the Woodrow Wilson Bridge, it was an easy 50-minute drive from Annapolis. Bill and I were excited to be attending the Mount Vernon by candlelight specialty tour.
Once inside the beautifully-decorated Ford Orientation Center, volunteers presented us with a business card bearing the name of whom would guide us on our tour back in time. We were honored to find we were with Benjamin Latrobe, architect of our Capitol building and considered the United States’ first professional architect.
Before our tour began, we had an opportunity to take in the Ford Orientation Center’s festive atmosphere. Period-dressed harp and dulcimer players entertained in the background. The gentle tones were relaxing, and served to set the mood for our journey back to the 18th century holiday world of the Washingtons.
We gathered around our first guide, who gave us a little preview of where we would be walking and what we would be seeing. Then, lantern in hand, he led our group of 21 out into the chilly, dark evening where we were instantly transported back in time.
As we carefully worked our way along the gravel pathway lit with elevated lanterns, our guide regaled us with tidbits about significant Christmases in Washington’s life and told about life at that time. It was very different from what we are accustomed to now. Christmas was dedicated to faith and family and not the wide-scale gift-giving we associate with today. Children of the time received books and candies, and small amounts of money. But the emphasis was on family, friends, and comradery.
Another notable tradition of the time was not simply celebrating Christmas and New Year’s Days. They observed the Twelve Days of Christmas – right up to January 6th, the same date in 1759 when George and Martha got married. As we learned, that was a very popular time for weddings, since family and friends all gathered from near and far for the holidays.
As we passed the slave quarters, you could hear the soft sounds of African music wafting through the night air and we were told about their Christmas repast. Traditional meals for those enslaved consisted of cornmeal and salted fish in a one-pot dish that might have been enhanced with some chicken or vegetables from their gardens. As we approached the mansion, we were advised that no pictures or video were allowed once inside the home.
Inside, we were greeted in the kitchen by a most enthusiastic woman who, without holding back a bit, let us know how excited she was about the return of Chef Hercules, coming home from his time with the General in Philadelphia.
Next, we were greeted in the library by a servant who reminisced about some of the flattering correspondence the Washingtons regularly received. The one he recounted was from a gentleman who had visited the estate earlier in the year and was extolling Mistress Washington for her unceasing attention and goodness, and his appreciation for the engraved cup marked with her initials that she presented to him.
Leaving the study, we climbed a narrow staircase to the second floor. In the hallway, we were greeted by Eleanor “Nelly” Parke Custis, the Washingtons’ granddaughter – a most cheerful, talkative young lady – with joyous news to tell. Cupid had struck her heart and she was now betrothed. The fortunate young man was Lawrence Lewis and she only hoped that their marriage would be blessed with the same love and happiness of her grandparents.
The staircase taking us down to the Dining Room was steep and winding, but the candles helped guide us along our way. That precarious trip down was well rewarded as we made the turn into the formal dining room and were graced with Martha Washington’s welcoming smile. She sat comfortably at the end of the room and reminisced about Christmases past, when her husband was President and they were far from home in New York and Philadelphia.
Once outside the mansion, we were led to the greenhouse where guests were encouraged to try their hand at learning 18th-century dancing. We were then invited to work our way past the bonfires and into another structure offering the most wonderful hot cider and scrumptious gingerbread cookies.
As we sipped our cider, we ambled over to the corral where Aladdin the camel was lying down, casually taking it all in. In 1787, a camel was brought to Alexandria, and George Washington paid 18 schillings for the camel and its owner to put on a show for their guests at Mount Vernon. And so the tradition continues.
There were other buildings opened for viewing, but by that time we were chilled and hungry. The Mount Vernon Inn, attached to the property, was just the ticket to fill our tummies before driving back to Annapolis.
Mount Vernon by Candlelight is a must-see if you love the holiday season. It was absolutely everything I had hoped it would be!
When you go, dress for the weather and wear comfortable walking shoes or boots … and get your tickets early. Parking is free and very close by.