Historical Holiday Cheer

In the colonial-era, the Christmas season lasted into January and concluded on Twelfth Night, a festive evening to mark the end of the Twelve Days of Christmas and celebrated much like our New Year’s Eve is today.  While the entire period featured frequent banquets and balls with much food and spirits, Twelfth Night was especially known for its revelry.

Just as we do today, many colonial Americans got into the holiday ‘spirit’ with a glass of something special and warming on Twelfth Night.  Special drinks called for distinctive mugs, glasses, and containers that were both functional and designed to impress your party guests.  In these containers, early Americans enjoyed familiar festive beverages like eggnog, hot chocolate, hot toddies, and punch.  At the same time, some of their holiday drinks are now a thing of the past or perhaps only enjoyed by those imbibers with an appreciation for history.

Many of these holiday beverages were created out of a desire to preserve the taste of fresh fruits harvested in the summer and fall so they could be enjoyed during the winter months.  Cherry ‘Bounce’ is a great example of this – in addition to being fun to say!  Easy to make, cherry bounce was started in the early summer when the fruit is ripe.  Fresh cherries (traditionally of the sour variety) were placed in bottles and topped off with brandy then stored for as long as you could stand to wait.  Leaving the fruit to infuse as long as possible increased the flavor and lent a lovely red color to the brandy.  The decanted off-flavored brandy was mixed with sugar and spices.  Martha Washington possessed a recipe for cherry bounce that included cloves, cinnamon and nutmeg and George Washington was said to have loved it so much that he took some in a canteen with him on a trip over the Allegheny Mountains in 1784.

Copper wheel engraved wine glass.

Copper wheel engraved wine glass.

Syllabub is another colonial beverage that has been forgotten.  Originating in England, this odd-sounding half-dessert, half-cocktail, was created by combining spirts such as wine, sherry, ale or cider with fresh milk – preferably so fresh that it had just come out of the cow and was still warm!  In fact, some recipes stated that a maid should milk the cow directly into a pan of your chosen spirit.  Unfortunately, this technique probably also resulted in some ‘barn yard’ material ending up in the concoction.  Sugar, spices and possibly citrus were then added.  While there are many versions of syllabubs, it often involved a frothy mixture of whipped egg whites, curd or cream that can be spooned off and eaten while you drink the liquid whey that separates beneath.  Served in a conical glass and sometimes displayed on a pyramid-shaped dessert tray with colorful jellies, syllabub made for a very festive holiday drink.

A Copper Wheel engraved dessert/fortified wine glass used to serve syllabub.

While many people may not have heard of syllabub and cherry bounce, wassail is a term that most are familiar with even if they’re not entirely sure what it is.  Actually, wassail was both a beverage and an activity.  Similar to today’s mulled ciders and wine, wassail was often served from a punch bowl passed around from person to person in an act of sharing and celebration.  The old Christmas carol “Here We Come A-Wassailing” describes the act of going from house to house singing and wishing good cheer while also sipping the punch-like drink composed of hot wine or ale mixed with spices, apples and sometimes topped with bread or toast.  But before you condemn our ancestors for drinking odd things, just think what future generations might think of what we consume today.  And perhaps try a colonial holiday beverage or two this Twelfth Night and evoke the spirit of holidays past!

Hand-blown mug for hot beverages such as wassail.

You can experience a dramatic theater presentation depicting a Twelfth Night celebration (minus the alcohol) at Historic Kenmore on Saturday, January 3 or Sunday, January 4.  Reservations are required and can be made by calling 540-370-0732 x24 or emailing hayes@gwffoundation.org.  Visit the events page on http://www.kenmore.org for more information!

Mara Kaktins
Archaeologist, Ceramics and Glass Specialist

Season’s Greetings


The George Washington Foundation wishes everyone a joyous holiday season!  We here at Lives & Legacies are taking a break from publishing this week.  If you missed it, check out our most recent post “Christmas in Fredericksburg with George Washington, 1769”. We’ll be back next week.

Christmas in Fredericksburg with George Washington, 1769

Six-year-old George Washington and his family moved to the land we call Ferry Farm late in 1738, perhaps even in time to mark Christmas in their new home.  If so, it was the first of many.  George lived at Ferry Farm into young adulthood.  Interestingly, the best documented Christmas he spent in Fredericksburg was actually in 1769, long after his boyhood years, and it paints a picture of the holiday as typically celebrated in Virginia, past and present.

George Washington at age 40 in 1772, three years after the Christmas of 1769. By J.W. Paradise (engraving) from a picture by J.G. Chapman after Charles Wilson Peale [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons.

After the House of Burgesses recessed, 36-year-old George Washington left Williamsburg for home on December 21, 1769.  Instead of traveling all the way to Mount Vernon, he stopped in Fredericksburg on December 23 and stayed in town through Christmas.  He arrived at “4 Oclock in the Aftern.” and went to the home of his brother-in-law Fielding Lewis. In 1769, the Lewis family did not yet live in the brick home we call Kenmore.  Instead, they were located near the present-day corner of Princess Anne and Lewis Streets.  That evening, George “ding. [dined] at Colo. Lewis” and he and Fielding may have been joined by George’s sister Betty, his young nephews George, Charles, Samuel, Lawrence, Robert, and his niece Betty.  Christmas was a period of rest that Virginians used for long visits and large meals with family and friends.  The meals amounted to feasts and a Christmas meal at Mount Vernon once featured, for example, “an elegant variety of roast beef, veal, turkey, ducks, fowls, hams &c.; puddings, jellies, oranges, apples, nuts, almonds, figs, raisins, & a variety of wines & punch. . .”[1]

On Christmas Eve, which was a Sunday, George “Went to Prayers, & dined afterwds. at Colo. Lewis.”  The prayer service he attended probably took place at St. George’s Church, an wooden structure located on the site of today’s St. George’s Episcopal Church. Many colonial Virginians combined the holiday’s religious nature with secular activities such as parties, much as we do today.  Washington was no different.  After his morning at church, he passed the evening in Julian’s Tavern with Edward Jones, the overseer of Ferry Farm, where George’s mother Mary still lived.  This tavern was located at the corner of Amelia and Caroline Streets.

Christmas Day was spent with the Lewis family and George won 2 pounds and 5 shillings playing cards.  Card playing for money was another aspect of Christmas carousing enjoyed by Virginians, whether men, women, or children.  Popular games included whist (similar to bridge), and piquet (similar to rummy) and were great ways to pass the time when visiting family and friends during Christmas.

On December 26, Washington prepared to continue his journey home by going to to the barber and paying for repairs to his carriage.  Before leaving, though, he again “Dined at Colo. Lewis” and then “went over the River and logd at my Mothers” for his final night in Fredericksburg.  After giving Mary 6 pounds in cash, George left Ferry Farm on the 27th and arrived home at Mount Vernon on December 28.

The Christmas season of the colonial era lasted much longer than ours does, extending into January and concluding on Twelfth Night, a festive evening to mark the end of the Twelve Days of Christmas and celebrated much like our New Year’s Eve is today.  During the first days of 1770 at Mount Vernon, Washington and his family continued visiting friends and hosted two dinners, including one on Twelfth Night.  It appears to have been a relatively subdued affair with only immediate family and four or five neighbors.  Three years later, on January 6, 1773, he had at least fourteen guests, excluding his own family, at a Twelfth Night celebration.

Christmas 1769 was one of many that George Washington spent in Fredericksburg.  It is the only one for which he recorded his activities, however.  He spent time with family, he enjoyed several good meals, he went to church, he drank at a local tavern, he won some money at cards, and he attended or hosted several celebratory gatherings.  All-in-all, his was a Christmas spent in ways not all that different from the ways many of us will spend our own holidays.

Zac Cunningham
Manager of Educational Programs

[1] Theophilus Bradbury quoted in Laura F. Winner, A Cheerful & Comfortable Faith: Anglican Religious Practice in the Elite Households of Eighteenth-Century Virginia, New Haven, CT: Yale University Press, 2010: 130.

The Whimsical Worlds of Kenmore’s “A Wee Christmas”

This year is our first-ever “A Wee Christmas — Dollhouses and Miniatures Show” at Historic Kenmore! “A Wee Christmas” has brought together many different dollhouses, miniature scenes, and figurines loaned by friends, neighbors, and staff for visitors to Kenmore Plantation to enjoy.  The highly detailed, replica dollhouse of Kenmore on display in our Crowninshield Museum inspired this new holiday event. You can read a blog post about the history of the Kenmore dollhouse here.

The photos in the gallery below show several of the whimsical dollhouses and miniatures on display. To enjoy all of them up close, visit Historic Kenmore before the exhibit ends on December 30. Check out the events page on http://www.kenmore.org for more information!

Ferry Farm is “Home Sweet Home” for the Holidays

Tradition says that Mary Ball Washington, mother of George Washington, was well-known for her excellent gingerbread. The story goes that she even served her gingerbread to the Marquis de Lafayette when he visited Fredericksburg as part of his postwar tour of America in 1784. Inspired by this tale and as Mary’s home for three decades from 1738 to 1772, George Washington’s Ferry Farm hosts a Gingerbread Contest and Exhibit each December. This year’s event is the 28th annual and features the theme “Home Sweet Home.”

The photos in the gallery below show just a few of this year’s contest entries representing a variety of ages and skill-levels. We’re also sharing some photos of Ferry Farm decked out for the holiday season and want to thank the Ann Page Garden Club for beautifully decorating this year.

To see all the gingerbread creations and to vote for your favorite, visit Ferry Farm before the exhibit ends on December 30. Check out the events page on http://www.kenmore.org for more information!


‘A Wee Christmas’ Display Inspired by a ‘Wee’ Kenmore

History of Kenmore Dollhouse (5)

Dollhouses on display as part of our first-ever “A Wee Christmas” Dollhouses & Miniatures Show.

This holiday season, we’re excited to share with our visitors the many dollhouses and miniatures loaned by friends, neighbors, and staff to form our first-ever dollhouses and miniatures show that we’re calling “A Wee Christmas at Historic Kenmore”. A highly detailed, replica dollhouse of Kenmore on display in our Crowninshield Museum served as the inspiration behind this new exhibit. Like its real life counterpart, this unique Kenmore replica has a fascinating history all its own.

While on a visit to Fredericksburg in the spring of 1984, Florence White, an enthusiast of Georgian architecture, fell in love with Kenmore. She had been searching for years to find just the right place to make into a grand historical dollhouse. Kenmore with its simple, symmetric windows and imposing brick walls was perfect.

History of Kenmore Dollhouse (1)

The dollhouse version of Historic Kenmore.

However, Florence needed someone who would construct this dollhouse with the degree of detail and intricacy that would mimic the elegant original. After a long unsuccessful search there came a chance meeting with Jim Freytag, a retired railroad man turned miniature enthusiast, and she knew she had her builder.

Jim’s first task was to visit the home that Florence wanted to replicate and gather as many details as he could. He wanted to make it as structurally authentic as possible from the number of bricks between the windows to the outside steps worn down with years of use. He toured the house taking notes on the particulars of each room, the furniture, the décor, and the layout. Photographs were not permitted inside the house so Jim purchased postcards in order to get better detail for the intricate plaster ceilings and mantels.

Some 2700 hours of work, 18,929 bricks and over $4000 later Florence had her Kenmore dollhouse. Jim had completed four bedrooms, a dining room, living room, drawing room, and study. They are each equipped with miniature pieces of furniture from a large cherry-stained Queen Anne table in the dining room flanked by two portraits of Colonel Lewis and Mrs. Lewis to canopy beds, brass candlesticks and leather boots in the bedrooms.

History of Kenmore Dollhouse (4)

A view of the Chamber inside the Kenmore dollhouse.

Over twenty-six years later, the dollhouse now sits in the museum gallery at Kenmore’s visitor center for all to view. Each room still has the exact furnishings so painfully and meticulously created by Jim and positioned to Florence’s specifications. The house is a time capsule which shows Kenmore before renovations completed nearly a decade ago. Visitors can see pieces of furniture that are no longer on display and can understand the dimensions of the upper floor rooms which are not currently open to the public.

Florence’s devotion to detail and Jim’s immense skill leave us with a whimsical model of Kenmore which exudes all the elegance and beauty of the original that would have made the Colonel and Betty proud.

You can see Florence and Jim’s replica of Kenmore as well as all the other wonderful dollhouses and miniatures that make up “A Wee Christmas at Historic Kenmore” until December 30.

Heather Baldus
Collections Manager

A Kenmore Christmas

Historic Kenmore is decorated for the holidays, portraying what it may have looked like during the Christmas season of 1775.  At that time, the Lewis family would have just moved into Kenmore a couple of months earlier, and it would have been their first Christmas in the new house.  It was a time of some sadness, as well – their 15 year old son Charles had died that fall, of an unidentified illness.  Although unknown at the time, it also would be the last “normal” holiday before the Revolution began in earnest.

The photos in the gallery below provide a glimpse of some traditional holiday decorations (a few have modern twists) and customs common to the 1700s.

Want to see Historic Kenmore in all of its holiday splendor? Seasonal tours are offered daily through December (Closed Christmas Eve, Christmas Day, and New Year’s Eve).  Or reserve a spot for our dramatic theater presentation that re-creates a Twelfth Night celebration inside the house on Saturday, January 3 and Sunday, January 4 .  See the events page on www.kenmore.org for more information!

Lives & Legacies: An Introduction

Lives and legacies fascinate. How people lived and shaped the world in which we live today are what many find most compelling about the past.

Lives and legacies are on our minds daily at George Washington’s Ferry Farm and Historic Kenmore. Indeed, the mission of The George Washington Foundation, which operates these two historic sites in Fredericksburg, Virginia, is to enhance the public understanding and appreciation of the lives, values, and legacies of George Washington, Fielding and Betty Washington Lewis, and their families.

Foundation of the Washington family home at Ferry Farm, where George Washington spent his boyhood. The photo shows the foundation in 2008 when it was discovered by archaeologists.

Foundation of the Washington family home at Ferry Farm, where George Washington spent his boyhood. The photo shows the foundation in 2008 when it was discovered by archaeologists.

George Washington lived on the land now known as Ferry Farm from the age of six until he was grown. It is here, under guidance from his mother Mary Ball Washington, that he developed the traits and skills that would propel him to greatness. The life he lived as a boy on this ground proved pivotal to his legacy as commanding general of the Continental Army and first president of a new nation.

Historic Kenmore, home of Fielding and Betty Washington Lewis, on a foggy December morning.

Historic Kenmore, home of Fielding and Betty Washington Lewis, on a foggy December morning.

George’s sister Betty Washington and her husband Fielding Lewis built Historic Kenmore in 1775, just as the American Colonies began their war of independence from England. Kenmore stands today as a fine example of an 18th-century, Georgian-style house and boasts some of the most elaborate plasterwork from colonial America. More than architecture and plaster, however, the house was the Lewis family’s home where they lived a life of happiness and then, with the onset of war, a life of sacrifice.

The lives and legacies of George Washington, Betty Washington, Fielding Lewis and their families are not the only ones with which we are concerned. Enslaved people, neighbors, Civil War soldiers, residents after the Washingtons, and Native Americans before the Washingtons all have valuable and fascinating lives and legacies to discover.

All of these people are why we have titled this blog “Lives & Legacies.” On this blog, we will share stories about their lives and explore the impact of their legacies down to the present day. We’ll examine archaeological artifacts uncovered during digs at Ferry Farm and historic objects on display at Historic Kenmore. We’ll discover how these artifacts and objects were used by people in the past and what they can tell us about their daily lives. We’ll delve into the role of nature and landscape in shaping lives and legacies and give you updates about native plants in Ferry Farm’s woods and what’s growing in Kenmore’s gardens. We’ll share thoughts and updates from our archaeologists, curators, and educators about the behind-the-scenes work that goes into our research and preservation efforts. Lastly, we’ll provide insight into our exhibits, programs, and special events.

Click the Follow button in the sidebar on the right (below The George Washington Foundation logo) and sign-up to receive an email whenever a new post goes up. You also might like to follow “The Rooms at Kenmore” blog, which documents the ongoing refurnishing of Historic Kenmore, at http://www.kenmore.org/wordpress. In the meantime, you can visit http://www.kenmore.org for a wealth of historic information about the lives and legacies of the Washingtons, Lewises, and more.

Zac Cunningham
Manager of Educational Programs