Topic: Guest contributor

From Mummers to Santa: Christmas in America

by E. Richard Knox
December 22, 2017

Christmas celebrations have changed radically since George Washington’s presidency. The new republic that Washington had guided into being was only beginning to create itself as a nation and had little unifying cultural identity. The 13 states differed significantly among themselves, including in how their new citizens observed—or ignored—Christmas.

Inevitably and understandably, colonial traditions persisted after independence. In colonial Massachusetts, the descendants of 17th-century Puritans looked with disdain on Christmas and often banned any celebrations associated with the day or season. They acknowledged the birth of Jesus of Nazareth but believed that setting aside a special day to mark it, and specifically December 25, was non-Biblical, even pagan. In colonial Virginia, on the other hand, the primary religious traditions were those of the Church of England, which celebrated Christmas as a feast day on December 25, and Washington himself often attended church on that day.

An image of mummers from “The popular history of England; an illustrated history of society and government from the earliest period to our own times,” by Charles Knight (1854). Courtesy of Internet Archives and the University of California Libraries.

Throughout the colonies, Christmas and New Year celebrations tended to hark back to older, more secular traditions, whose roots can be traced to Saturnalia of Roman times. These traditions included general revelry or, more specifically, “mummering.” In the season after the harvest, which included the slaughter of livestock, the brewing of beer, and the vinting of wine, bands of mummers would roam the streets in celebration, demanding the brewed punch called “wassail.” (Since those early days of the nation, wassailing has nearly become a lost tradition. Even the most enthusiastic carolers of today frequently are unaware of the meaning behind “Here We Come A-Wassailing.” We see the remnants of wassailing and mummering today on Halloween, when costumed children demand treats, and on New Year’s Day in Philadelphia, where extravagantly dressed mummers parade up and down the streets.) Mummery, which included both men and women, was a socially acceptable way to step outside convention: mummers of colonial times and the early days of the new nation often donned the clothing of the opposite gender, and the poor of the community, dressed as mummers, could demand food and brew from the wealthy in return for a song.

Responding to this tradition, on his first New Year’s Day as president of the fledgling nation, George Washington and his beloved Martha opened their presidential home in New York to all visitors. When they moved to Philadelphia the following year, they continued to open the president’s house, and Thomas Jefferson and others followed this practice in the new capital city bearing Washington’s name.

During his presidency, Washington also declared days of thanksgiving, partly to bring together the people and cultures of the new nation. Even after his death, Washington inspired unifying traditions: just a few short years after his passing, the nation honored him by celebrating his birthday on February 22. This was only the second holiday to be observed by the entire nation at that time, the first being the birthday of the nation itself on July 4.

Well aware of the unifying nature of Washington’s legacy and the popularity of the nation’s two patriotic holidays, many came to feel that the new United States should establish additional common holidays to define its emerging identity. The mummers’ celebrations of the abundance of the harvest and the enforced days of leisure during the dark days of winter focused holiday planning on December. Sarah Hale, the influential longtime editor of Godey’s Lady Book and Magazine, championed a Thanksgiving holiday to round out the year.1 John Pintard, leader of the newly formed New-York Historical Society, advocated instead for Christmas, urging that it be celebrated as a domestic, family-oriented holiday, rather than with the rowdy street expressions of wassailing, revelry, and mummering. Washington Irving and Clement Clarke Moore, two of the many prominent board members of the historical society, agreed with Pintard. Their support is notable given their influence on Christmas traditions still practiced today. Moore is widely accepted as the author of what we know now as ‘Twas the Night Before Christmas,2 which borrows heavily from the legend of St. Nicholas dreamed up by Irving in his A History of New York, From the Beginning of the World to the End of the Dutch Dynasty…by Dietrich Knickerbocker (1809). Ten years later, Irving added to American Christmas lore with his Sketchbook of Geoffrey Crayon, Gent. (1819–20), a collection of stories including some of traditional British Christmases,3 in which people sang carols, came home to gather at a bountiful table, and kissed under mistletoe. The only problem with Irving’s descriptions of those Christmases is that he created many of the “traditions” himself! But his stories were so widely read that many of his inventions were believed and quickly accepted as the family-focused ways to celebrate Christmas in the new nation.

The shift from rowdy street celebrations, in the form of mummery and wassailing, to domestic traditions had an unintended and unforeseen consequence. In the former, the expected gifts were food and drink for strangers, neighbors, or servants. Once Christmas became a family tradition celebrated in the home, where food and drink were already part of daily life, gifts needed to be purchased or made. Very quickly, Christmas became a retail bonanza.

From the first half of the 19th century, Christmas celebrations have grown ever more popular in the United States. In July 1870, Ulysses S. Grant signed a law proclaiming Christmas an official federal holiday. Other national holidays have been established over the decades, including, of course, Sarah Hale’s notion of Thanksgiving. But in general, Christmas has become the focus of the nation’s attention, both religious and secular, in the depths of winter. Even for nonbelievers, the holiday is often a shared part of our culture and identity. However, just as Washington would have difficulty recognizing the political practices of the United States today, he likely would struggle to comprehend the holidays his country has created in the two centuries since his formative efforts. High on this list would be Christmas as we celebrate it today, with its long commercial lead-up, Santas in our malls and on our lawns, and the notions and origins of wassailing and mummery all but forgotten.


Richard Knox recently taught “Christmas in America” as part of UVA’s Osher Lifelong Learning Institute (OLLI). He is a retired professor of social ethics and United Methodist minister, and the stepfather of Jane Haxby, copy editor here at The Washington Papers.

  1. Sarah Hale’s vision of a national Thanksgiving Day was finally realized by President Abraham Lincoln on Oct. 3, 1863. The timing of his proclamation, right in the midst of the Civil War, emphasizes the unifying intentions behind the federal holiday. For more on Sarah Hale’s efforts to establish Thanksgiving Day, see Barbara Maranzani, “Abraham Lincoln and the ‘Mother of Thanksgiving,’” Oct. 3, 2013,
  2. In recent years, Moore’s authorship of “A Visit from St. Nicholas,” now known as “‘Twas the Night Before Christmas” (the opening words of the poem) has come into question. Two scholars hold that Major Henry Livingston was more likely the author. See Don Foster, “Yes, Virginia, There Was a Santa Claus,” in Author Unknown: On the Trail of Anonymous (New York, 2000), 222–75; and MacDonald P. Jackson, Who Wrote “the Night Before Christmas”?: Analyzing the Clement Clarke Moore Vs. Henry Livingston Question (Jefferson, N.C., 2016).
  3. Interestingly, while these five tales of Christmas have been largely forgotten, two other stories from that collection remain popular today: “Rip Van Winkle” and “The Legend of Sleepy Hollow.” For more on Irving’s influence on American Christmas traditions, see Andrew Burstein, “How Christmas Became Merry,” New York Times for Dec. 25, 2005, at


Penne L. Restad, Christmas in America: A History, New York, 1995.

Stephen Nissenbaum, The Battle for Christmas, New York, 1997.




A Story in Silk: Meeting Martha Washington Through a Surviving Gown

By Cynthia Chin, Georgetown University
December 1, 2017

“I…cannot help reminding you that it is necessary to be carefull of all your cloths – and have them kept together and often look over them -”

– Martha Washington to her granddaughter Eleanor (Nelly) Parke Custis, January 14, 17961

It’s a rare thing when you meet an extant 18th-century gown and know who wore it. Rarer still, when the wearer was Martha Dandridge Custis Washington. I recently had the honor of examining one of Martha Washington’s three known, intact, surviving gowns,2 which was generously loaned to George Washington’s Mount Vernon by the New Hampshire Historical Society (NHHS) for viewing and study.3

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Documentary Editing at the Digital Humanities Summer Institute

By Cathy Moran Hajo, Director of the Jane Addams Papers Project
July 1, 2016

IMG_20160617_124340732-300x222Since 2001, the Digital Humanities Summer Institute, held annually in Victoria, British Columbia, Canada, has been an annual gathering of technologists, scholars, librarians, graduate and undergraduate students…and editors. For the past three years, Jennifer Stertzer (Washington Papers) and Cathy Hajo (The Jane Addams Papers Project), joined this year by Erica Cavanaugh (Washington Papers), have offered a course titled “Conceptualising and Creating Digital Editions,” one of a rich slate of hands-on and theoretical week-long immersions into digital humanities.

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George – and Martha – Washington’s Mount Vernon: Journal of a Recent Visit to Mount Vernon, November 3 – 5, 2015


The cover of The Washingtons, courtesy of the author.

The cover of The Washingtons, courtesy of the author.

By Flora Fraser, Author of The Washingtons:  George and Martha, “Join’d by Friendship, Crown’d by Love”, a new portrait of the first presidential family as informed by the Papers of George Washington


Tuesday, November 3, 2015

On board BA 217, London to DC. I’m looking forward to speaking tomorrow night in the Gay Hart Gaines Distinguished Visiting Lecturer of American History programme. It’s wonderful to speak for the first time about my book, The Washingtons, at Mount Vernon, where I first conceived the idea of writing about America’s first couple, as well as where Mary Thompson, research historian, was so very generous about my many visits to her office, with her time and thoughts about George and Martha.

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George Washington and Bees

By Mary Thompson
April 2, 2015

Mary is the Research Historian at Mount Vernon, with a primary focus on everyday life on the estate, including: domestic routines; foodways; religious practices; slavery and the enslaved community; hired and indentured workers; and animals, both pets and livestock.

There are only two brief mentions in George Washington’s papers indicating that bees were raised by him at Mount Vernon. On July 28, 1787, 300 nails were given out at the Circle Storehouse to an indentured English joiner named Matthew Baldridge, “for to make a bee house.” Two days later, Matthew received another 200 nails for the same project. [1] In addition to getting honey from his own bees, George Washington is known to have purchased honey, as well as other foodstuffs such as chickens, eggs, vegetables, and fruit, from his slaves. Honey, for example, was acquired at various times from Nat (a blacksmith); Davy, who was an enslaved overseer; and carpenters Sambo and Isaac, indicating that they, too, probably kept bees. [2]

14th cent. bee houses (27-alimenti,_miele,_Taccuino_Sanitatis,_Casanatense_4182)

Bees would have been prized for making the honey, which was one of George Washington’s favorite foods. Both family members and visitors made note of the fact that Washington usually ate hoecakes, a “typically American” dish thought by some historians to be a reflection of slave influence on Anglo-American cuisine, and honey for breakfast. [3] Houseguest Winthrop Sargent found breakfast with the Washingtons to be a “very substantial Repast”, but noted that “Indian hoe cake with Butter & Honey seemed the principal Component Parts.” [4] A visitor from Poland reported that Washington had “tea and caks made from maize; because of his teeth he makes slices spread with butter and honey….” [5] According to step-granddaughter Nelly Custis, Washington “ate three small mush cakes (Indian meal) swimming in butter and honey,” and “drank three cups of tea without cream”. Her younger brother, George Washington Parke Custis, described Washington’s discipline regarding breakfast: “…This meal was with out [sic] change to him whose habits were regular, even to matters which others are so apt to indulge themselves in to endless variety. Indian cakes, honey, and tea, formed this temperate repast….” On days when he planned to go hunting, however, Washington would substitute “a bowl of milk” in place of tea. [6]

All of those hoecakes would have required a large amount of honey. Following a serious illness during the presidency, George Washington’s sister, Betty Washington Lewis, of Kenmore in Fredericksburg, celebrated her brother’s return to health by sending a special present she knew he would enjoy:

“We have been extreamly [sic] concern’d at hearing of your late illness, but the arrival of Roberts [sic] last letter brought us the Agreeable information that the Doctors had Pronounc’d you would shortly be Able to ride out—when I had last the Pleasure of seeing you I observ’d Your fondness for Honey. I have got a large Pot of very fine in the Comb, which I shall send by the first Opportunity [sic].” [7]

A few months later, another relative, Ann Willis, who was married to George Washington’s cousin, Lewis Willis, sent the President and First Lady “four glasses of Virg[in]ia honey” from her home near Fredericksburg. In her accompanying note, Mrs. Willis noted that she had “not a doubt of that article being plenty [sic] in the State of New York but perhaps not wrought in the same manner and of course not so pure.” She closed with the thought that she “flatters herself if it has no other recommendation than being sent by an acquaintance from a place near that of his Nativity they will be induced to taste it and will be happy to hear of the welfare of the family and that they have made an agreeable breakfast on it.” [8] At the close of Washington’s presidency eight years later, among the many things the family packed to ship back to Mount Vernon from Philadelphia was “one demijohn with honey.” [9] A demijohn was a very large glass bottle, covered with wickerwork.


1. See entries dated July 28 and 30, 1787, in the Mount Vernon Storehouse Account Book, 1787 (typescript, LGWMV). [back]

2. See entries for September 7, 1788, September 27, 1788, July 19, 1789, and March 28, 1791, in Ledger B (bound photostat, LGWMV), 270a, 275a, 306a, and 325a. [back]

3. Stacy Gibbons Moore, “Established and Well Cultivated: Afro-American Foodways in Early Virginia,” Virginia Cavalcade (Autumn 1989, 70-83), 78-79. [back]

4. Winthrop Sargent, October 13, 1793 (typescript, LGWMV). (Also see GW to James Madison, 14 October 1793, note 3.) [back]

5. Julian Ursyn Niemcewicz, June 5, 1798, Under Their Vine and Fig Tree: Travels Through America in 1797-1799, 1805, edited and translated by Metchie J. E. Budka (Elizabeth, NJ: Grassman Publishing Company, 1965), 103. [back]

6. Nelly Custis Lewis to Elizabeth Bordley Gibson, December 23, 1823 (typescript, LGWMV); George Washington Parke Custis, Recollections and Private Memoirs of Washington, By His Adopted Son, George Washington Parke Custis, With a Memoir of the Author, By His Daughter; and Illustrative and Explanatory Notes, by Benson J. Lossing (originally published, New York: Derby & Jackson, 1860; reprinted, Bridgewater, VA: American Foundation Publications, 1999), 166-167, 386. [back]

7. Betty Washington Lewis to George Washington, July 24, 1789, in The Papers of George Washington, Presidential Series, 3:301. [back]

8. Mrs. Ann Willis to Martha Washington, September 18, 1789, “Worthy Partner,” 218 & 218n1-n2. [back]

9. George Washington, Packing List from Philadelphia to Mount Vernon, March 17, 1797 (photostat, LGWMV). [back]