No Christmas in Alexandria is complete without homemade hot cocoa, caroling and camels, am I right? That’s how George Washington, who called Alexandria home, liked to celebrate Christmas. You too can celebrate Christmas the Washington way this holiday season at Mount Vernon, our first president’s estate just south of Alexandria, where Washington’s family holiday traditions (and recipes) live on. Oh, and you just might get to meet the Christmas camel! Read on to find out what makes Christmas at Mount Vernon its happiest season of all.
1. Aladdin the Christmas camel
George and Martha Washington knew how to throw a holiday party. But Aladdin the Christmas camel takes things to the next level. What we know: on Christmas 1787, George Washington had a camel brought from Alexandria to Mount Vernon to entertain his guests, all for the high sum of 18 shillings.
This holiday season at Mount Vernon, you can meet the live camel Aladdin—no relation to the 18th century dromedary—and experience Christmas like a Washington.
2. Chocolate demonstrations and tastings
Visit Mount Vernon this Christmas and you can see—and taste in all its glory—what chocolate making was like for early Americans, including our first president. George Washington frequently purchased between one and 50 pounds of chocolate at an apothecary shop such as Stabler-Leadbeater in Alexandria. This chocolate was no Hershey’s bar, however—it was non-perishable, so bitter that even rats would leave it alone.
Once the bitter cocoa was brought to Mount Vernon, it was ground against a lava stone into a fragrant paste, adding spices like chili pepper, nutmeg, cinnamon, anise, vanilla, dried orange peel and raw sugar to make it palatable.
Martha Washington was an especially big fan of the resulting drink. During the winter, Mrs. Washington enjoyed three cups of hot cocoa each morning with her breakfast—a woman after my own heart!
Now that you’ve learned about chocolate at Mount Vernon, are you ready to do your patriotic duty and down a cup? Head to Mount Vernon this holiday season to sample it yourself!
3. Rarely-seen third floor and holiday feast
Image credit: Mount Vernon
This Christmas at Mount Vernon, you can tour George Washington’s house and the rarely-seen third floor, where Martha Washington retired after her husband’s death. Christmas trees weren’t en vogue in American until the 19th century, but even without the lavish decorating of today, Christmas was still just as merry on Mount Vernon, according to one historian: “Once again they witnessed the manifestations of a proper holiday—bonfires in the quarters, the house decorated with greens, tables groaning with all the goodness of home-cooking.”
You can catch a glimpse of these holly jolly 18th-century celebrations on the mansion tour. In the Washington’s kitchen a Christmas meal awaits (it’s just a replica—the real thing would be too hard to resist!). Martha’s Christmas menu often included capon stuffed with oysters, roast veal stuffed with herb dressing, and her humongous pies. Oh, her pies.
In November 1786, a close friend of George Washington wrote to him: “Tho. I shall not have the felicity of eating Christmas Pies at Mount Vernon, I hope & trust my former exploits in that way will not be forgotten…” Washington replied on December 26 to say he was sorry his friend could not “aid in the attack of Christmas pies: we had one yesterday on which all the company, tho’ pretty numerous [there were at least nine present], were hardly able to make an impression.”
Let’s not even start on Martha Washington’s “Great Cake.” All you need to know: 40 eggs, 4 pounds of butter, 4 pounds of sugar. Now that’s a cake.
4. Costumed characters, authentic stories
During the Christmas season, Lady Washington and other members of the first president’s family return to walk the halls of Mount Vernon. You can meet these costumed characters, listen to their stories about holiday traditions and even ask questions about what life was like in Alexandria in the 18th century.
You might hear tales of the glories of Christmases long, long ago from Nelly and Washie (Mrs. Washington’s grandchildren, who received a locket and a fiddle, respectively, for Christmas one year), or you might learn how the Washingtons and their guests passed a cold winter night, drinking punch and playing card games by the fire in Mount Vernon’s West Parlor—or challenging each other to bouts of chess and backgammon.
5. Mount Vernon by Candlelight
Image credit: Mount Vernon
The best way to discover this National Treasure? See it by candlelight tours the weekends leading up to December 25. You can follow a costumed guide around the lantern-lit mansion, where Lady Washington will invite you to join her in fireside caroling and festive treats like hot cider and cookies. Warm your hands by a kettle fire, dance an 18th century reel in the green house, and get a behind the scenes look at life at life in the Washington household.
If you’d like to treat your own holiday guests to a presidential pastry, you can grab a complimentary copy of Martha’s Great Cake recipe—adapted to a modern kitchen—and give it a go at home. (Then invite me over for dinner, please!)
It looks like there’s no shortage of Christmas spirit at Mount Vernon this holiday season—and this isn’t even a full list of all the festive events! For the first time ever, on December 20th Mount Vernon will open its doors for a fireworks show choreographed to holiday music over the Potomac River in its Christmas Illuminations event. Also, don’t skip the Mount Vernon gift shop—it’s packed full of local wine, books, ornaments and more. You can get tickets for Christmas at Mount Vernon, plus a 10 percent off coupon for the Mount Vernon gift shop, from the Alexandria Visitors Center.
November 28-January 6, 2014
9 a.m.-4 p.m.
December 6, 7, 13, 14, 19 and 21, 2014
December 20, 2014
To learn more about the holidays at Mount Vernon, click here.
Header image credit: Mount Vernon