The mansion and trees are lit up for visitors to enjoy during the “Winter Glow” events at the estate during the holiday. (photo: Buddy Secor)
The Mount Vernon mansion and trees are lit up for visitors to enjoy during the 'Winter Glow' events at the estate during the holiday. (Photo: Buddy Secor)

Many events for the Christmas holidays in the United States were canceled or held virtually due to the coronavirus pandemic. But at Mount Vernon in Alexandria, Virginia, the Christmas spirit is being kept alive through an event called Winter Glow, when the large estate is illuminated at night during the season.

“We have music, the trees are lit up in different colors, and moving snowflakes are being projected onto the mansion,” said Melanie Adams, an interpreter supervisor at Mount Vernon.

“By implementing safety measures, including wearing face masks, we’re able to spread out things for visitors to do and see at Mount Vernon,” Matt Briney, the communications vice president, said.

The historic landmark was the former plantation home of George Washington, the first U.S. president from 1789 to 1797.

Adams was dressed in colonial-style garb.

Watch a slideshow of scenes from Mount Vernon's Winter Glow

We have interpreters, like myself, who share stories about Mount Vernon, she said, and there is a blacksmith who crafts tools that would have been used on the plantation.  

Baker Justin Cherry, owner of the Half Crown Bakehouse in Summerville, South Carolina, tells visitors about colonial food at Christmas.  Cherry was selling bread he had cooked earlier in the day at Mount Vernon.

Justin Cherry bakes bread in a clay, wood-fired oven he made. He uses the same kind of wheat that was grown on Mount Vernon during Washington’s time. (Photo: Deborah Block)

“I made this mobile wood-fired clay oven that is based on a style that was commonly found on Virginia plantations in the 18th century,” he said. “The bread is made from the same kind of wheat Washington grew on this farm.”

“Winter Glow is a nice blend of the old and new,” said visitor Michael McCowan. “The snowflake projection and other lighting is contemporary,” and it is interesting to listen to people in period dress explain what Christmas was like in Washington’s time,” he said.

In colonial America, the holiday began on Christmas Eve and went through the Twelfth Night (January 5), explained Mount Vernon associate curator Jessie MacLeod.  “It was a joyous celebration of family and friends with music, dancing and elaborate meals,” she said.

But for the more than 300 people who were enslaved at Mount Vernon, Christmas meant little joy.  “Generally, they received about 4 days off at Christmastime, which was the largest stretch of time they got off during the year,” MacLeod said, “and some of them may have received extra rations of food.”

She said in the late 1700s, “the holiday was much more low key than Christmas in the modern world,” with no decorations or presents.

And no Christmas trees, like the ones adding a festive touch to the visitors center.  Christmas trees didn’t become popular until the next century.

But Christmas carols were popular.

Deborah Brower and her son Rob Himberter who are carolers at Mount Vernon, sang together by a fire on a cool night.

Mount Vernon Christmas carolers Deborah Brower and her son Rob Himberter perform songs that were popular during the colonial era. (Photo: Dan Chung)

“I’ve been doing this with my mom for 20 years,” said Himberter.  “We mostly perform songs from Washington’s time, especially party and game songs.”

“It has been strange singing carols with masks and we are a bit muffled,”  Brower added, ”but we wanted to be sure we did not spread the virus by singing.”

Aladdin the Christmas camel with Tom Plott, who portrays President Washington's farm manager. Aladdin has been a fixture during the holiday season for the past 13 years. (Courtesy: Mount Vernon)

Christmas at Mount Vernon also features a camel, named Aladdin, that usually lives on a farm in Virginia, but has been a fixture at the estate during the holiday season for the past 13 years.

The reason goes back to George Washington.

In 1787, the president met a man with a camel who was traveling through the area during Christmastime.  Washington paid him to bring the animal to Mount Vernon for a few days for the enjoyment of his guests.

From a fenced-in area, Aladdin curiously eyed the visitors who were staring at him.

“Aladdin is my buddy,” said Tom Plott, manager of character interpretation, as he stood near the one-hump camel.

“He’s a sweet guy, like an affectionate big dog, and I talk to him,” said Plott, who portrays Washington’s farm manager. “But Aladdin can also be stubborn and turn his back when he’s not in the mood to interact with people,” he added.

Justin Fierova, a first-time visitor from Texas, said he loved seeing the camel.

“Plus, the lights are beautiful and the history is fascinating,” he said. “And after spending so much time at home during the pandemic, it is really nice to see people again.”