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December 16, 2010

Home of First US President Hosts Historic Christmas

by Deborah Block

The Mount Vernon Estate in the southern U.S. state of Virginia is one of the most beloved historical landmarks in the United States.  Every year, about one million people visit the home of America's first president, George Washington, who led the country from 1789 to 1797.  

The house and museum on the grounds are now decorated for Christmas.  In addition to enjoying the decorations, visitors can also see a camel and hear stories about what Christmas was like at Mount Vernon in the 18th century.

The museum where visitors begin their tour of Mount Vernon is decorated with Christmas trees, with picture ornaments of American presidents, including Barack Obama.

However, Christmas trees would not have been found in Mount Vernon during the late 1700s since they only became popular in the US during the next century.  

Melissa Wood, spokesperson for Mount Vernon, says President Washington's mansion on the plantation was sparsely decorated. "There was greenery inside the mansion but that was probably the extent of the decorations," she said.

The holiday was a festive occasion, and friends and family of President Washington and his wife Martha, would gather at Mount Vernon. "Celebrations would start on Christmas Day, ending on the 12th night, which was really the big celebration, and on that night Martha Washington would make her great cake.  We still have this recipe today, and we actually hand it out to visitors during our holiday events," she said.

But Christmas in those days was mostly a religious holiday.   A woman who portrays Mrs. Washington at Mount Vernon talks about what Christmas was probably like. "We observed the 12 days of Christmas beginning with being well-churched on Christmas Day.  We usually fasted and prayed most of Christmas Day.  But my little brothers, on the plantation, they loved to shoot in the Christmas.  They'd go out at midnight and shoot off the guns to announce the savior's birth," she said.

One Christmas, President Washington brought a camel to Mount Vernon for his guests to enjoy.  So this Christmas season, Mount Vernon once again has a camel - from a farm in Virginia.  

Another favorite activity on the plantation was making chocolate from cocoa beans. Tim Larner gave a demonstration, saying, "It was not a candy.  It was more a drink.  So you would have your bars here, and then you would grate them down into powdered chocolate, and make a hot chocolate out of it.  It's a very thick, a very stimulating drink, which is actually why it was not advisable for children back in the 18th century."

Christmas was a happy time at Mount Vernon, with friends and family sharing food and good times - at least one thing about Christmas that is still the same in the United States more than 200 years later.