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Candlelight Tours in Historic Virginia Town Highlight 18th Century Christmas

Candlelight Tours in Historic Virginia Town Highlight 18th Century Christmas
Candlelight Tours in Historic Virginia Town Highlight 18th Century Christmas

The holiday season is magical in the Old Town section of Alexandria, Virginia near Washington. The 18th century buildings are decorated for Christmas. And two of the most notable historic places - a former tavern and a previous residence - hold candlelight tours to show visitors what it was like during the holiday in the late 1700s.

An 18th century Christmas appears to be alive in Old Town, Alexandria with traditional music, dancing and decorations. In the late 1700s, Alexandria was a key seaport across the Potomac River from what is now Washington.

Perhaps the liveliest place was Gadsby's Tavern, a center of political, business and social life in early Alexandria. Several U.S. presidents stopped there. Today, part of the tavern is a museum. Candlelight tour guide Kathy Kelly describes an early, Christmas scene.

"You would have had a very crowded, noisy, smoky, bustling room. This room would have been gentlemen only, we believe. You have seen men enjoying good food and good drink. If these were gentlemen who had come in from farms and plantations, you might have expected to see their dogs coming with them and dogs under the tables," she said.

Twelve-year-old Sarah Jordan is also helping with the candlelight tour. She says Christmas day in the 18th century was more of a religious holiday, with decorations consisting of greenery and berries from local trees and bushes. "They had the holly leaves and the magnolia leaves which were only subtle accents. It was fairly simple," she said.

Christmas was also a time for parties and dances. Gadsby's Tavern has an upstairs ballroom that is still used today for dancing, including 18th century English country dances. The dance was popular in the late 1700s.

Dancer Larry Corky Palmer says George Washington, the first president of the United States, came to Gadsby's Tavern for birthday parties given in his honor. "He loved to do this kind of dancing. In fact, he himself danced here at Gadsby's Tavern to celebrate his own birth," he said.

On Christmas, it was typical to hold a feast. At the Carlyle House in Old Town there would have been an array of special foods. In the 1700s, John Carlyle, a wealthy merchant, owned the home. Today the house is a historic landmark.

Carlyle House curator Sarah Coster says the owner of such a house gave small gifts or cash to the servants at Christmas. "They might take out their wallet, separate some coins, and then give them to their servants throughout the day, whether it was the person getting their horse ready or getting their clothes ready. The other thing that might occur on Christmas morning, you might wake up to the sound of gunfire as men in the town would come out with their guns and have a celebratory shot into the air," she said.

Today the Carlyle House is open for tours. Gadsby's Tavern also has a restaurant in the original dining room, and serves some of the same food that was popular in the late 1700s.