Tallio! Fox Hunting at Christmas

Although Fielding Lewis certainly built a home capable of hosting the elaborate Christmas celebrations popular in 18th century Virginia, Historic Kenmore probably never saw occasions on such a lavish scale, with the possible exception of the family’s first Christmas in the house in December 1775.  If the family hosted the traditional Christmas celebration, Fielding and Betty would have welcomed lots of friends and family, serving them fancy dinners and entertaining them with dancing and music. They and their guests might have enjoyed fox hunts as well.

Virginians regularly included fox hunts as part of their Christmas celebrations.[1]  In an era long before environmental conservation, colonial Virginians viewed foxes as pests that endangered livestock, which is why they hunted them so relentlessly.[2]  Additionally, during hunts, gentry men like George Washington could show off their hunting dogs and their skill at horseback riding while chasing foxes through the countryside.

George Washington loved fox hunting. In the year 1768, for example, he went on fox hunts 40 different times.  These hunts often lasted hours.  On a March day in 1768, he caught “a fox with a bobd Tail & cut Ears, after 7 hours chase.

George owned numerous hunting dogs and “helped develop the breed known as the American Foxhound.”  These hounds chased the fox and hunters on horseback chased the hounds.  The chase required galloping horses to jump over streams, bushes, and fences and riders to duck under low-hanging tree limbs.  Fox hunting allowed wealthy Virginians to show-off their horse riding skills and George was widely considered an excellent horseman.

Hunters also wore special clothes.  George went hunting in “a blue riding frock and scarlet waistcoat threaded with gold lace and topped by a black velvet cap.  He wore high boots and carried a . . . riding crop.”[2]    He wore cuff links that said “tallio” on them – that’s what hunters would shout when they found a fox.  These cufflinks were unearthed by archaeologists at George Washington’s Ferry Farm and their discovery hint at George’s interest in fox hunting even in his younger years.  He also hung paintings of fox hunts on the walls of his home at Mount Vernon.

TallioCufflinks

Cufflinks discovered in the parlor root cellar and yard of the Washington House at Ferry Farm show a fox running across grassy rolling hills with the word “tallio” engraved above. This is a popular 18th century motif.

Like the George’s paintings at Mount Vernon, Fielding Lewis included foxes in the decor of his home. At Kenmore, the Lewis children were always reminded of the sneaky ways of foxes when they looked at a picture above the Dining Room fireplace.  The plaster image illustrates the Aesop’s fable known as “The Fox and the Crow.”

Fox Crow Overmantle (1)

This plaster over-mantle in Historic Kenmore’s dining room depicts the Aesop’s Fable known as “The Fox and the Crow.”

One day a fox saw a crow flying with a piece of cheese in its beak and settle on a branch of a tree.  “That’s for me!’ said Master Fox, and he walked up to the foot of the tree.

“Good-day, Mistress Crow,” he cried, “How well you are looking today; how shiny your feathers; how bright your eyes.  Your voice must be more beautiful than that of other birds.  Won’t you, please, sing me a song that I may know you are the Queen of Birds?

The crow, quite happy to hear such praise, began to sing her best – “Caw, Caw, Caw”, but when she opened her beak, the piece of cheese dropped to the ground and was snapped up by Master Fox.

Fox Crow Overmantle (2)

A close-up view of the over-mantle shows Mistress Crow dropping her cheese to be scooped up by Master Fox.

“Aha, Mistress Crow,” said he.  “That was what I wanted.  In exchange for your cheese I will give you some advice for the future: “Beware of false flattery.”

This Christmas, some sneaky foxes have found their way into Kenmore.

Fox in Kemore 2

A sneaky fox hiding somewhere inside Kenmore.

During the holiday season, younger visitors can help us look for them in a special scavenger hunt and learn about the colonial Christmas custom of fox hunting.

Zac Cunningham
Manager of Educational Programs

[1] Philip Vickers Fithian, Journal & Letters of Philip Vickers Fithian, 1773-1774: A Plantation Tutor of the Old Dominion, ed Hunter Dickinson Farish (Williamsburg, Va., 1943), entry for Dec. 18, 1773: 44

[2] Jane Carson, Colonial Virginians at Play, Williamsburg, VA: Colonial Williamsburg Foundation, 1998: 62-64

[3] Ron Chernow, Washington: A Life, New York: Penguin Press, 2010: 124-5.

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