The Decked Halls of George Washington’s Ferry Farm & Historic Kenmore [Photos]

Happy Holidays! George Washington’s Ferry Farm & Historic Kenmore are closed today for Christmas Eve and tomorrow for Christmas Day.  Both houses will reopen for tours for five more days this year before closing on New Year’s Eve and beginning their annual two-month closure during the months of January and February.  If you are unable to visit this holiday season, please enjoy these photos giving you a festive glimpse inside each home.

To learn more about visiting Kenmore and Ferry Farm, click here.

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Sage, Rosemary, and Thyme: A Different Kind of Holiday Decorating

Over the years, we’ve often discussed how colonial-era Christmas celebrations and decorations were different from our own modern-day versions (read here, here, here, here, and here).  Each year, throughout the month of December at Historic Kenmore, we depict the Twelfth Night festivities possibly enjoyed by the Lewis family because, in the 1700s, the main holiday celebration took place in January at the end of the Christmas season, rather than on Christmas day.  We show an elaborate dessert table, loaded with fanciful sugar creations and treats, waiting for midnight revelers to partake during a break from music and dancing.  We place simple jars of greenery around the house, and show a large punch bowl at the ready to serve holiday visitors.  There are no Christmas trees or mentions of Santa yet – those would come later, in the 19th century.

Kenmore Dessert Table

Dessert table from overhead in the passage at Historic Kenmore.

Kenmore Punch Bowl

Punch bowl and tumblers in the drawing room at Kenmore.

This year at George Washington’s Ferry Farm, we have a new challenge: how do we show the Christmas season in the Washington house? The Washington family lived at Ferry Farm in the 1740s when Colonial Virginia was a more rustic place. While the Washington family was living in a far better situation than most of their neighbors, they still couldn’t imagine the luxuries that the Lewises would know at Kenmore 40 years later.  So what was Christmas like for the Washingtons?

Washington House - December 2018

The Washington house replica at Ferry Farm as snow flurries fall on a December day at the end of 2018.

Unfortunately, we don’t have a lot of information from that early part of the 18th century to give us much detail.  The Christmas season was rarely mentioned in correspondence or journal entries, and so we can surmise that the lack of mention means that the holidays weren’t an especially unusual time in the lives of most early Virginians.

Interestingly, we actually know more about the seasonal happenings of an even earlier time – that of the very first colonists to arrive in the New World during the 1600s.  Because those early colonists were religiously devout, they observed the sacred aspects of the season strictly, even in the harsh environment they found themselves in after crossing the ocean.  There are a number of holy days, feasts and saints’ days that occur throughout the Christmas season, and marking each of them with church services, large meals or simply readings and recitations comprised the holiday period for those early Virginians.  With a few exceptions, decorations, special foods, small gift-giving, music, parties and the other secular trappings of the holiday would be largely confined to the late 18th century celebrations known to places like Kenmore.  The Washingtons at Ferry Farm probably fell somewhere in between these earlier and later extremes.

Although the Washingtons probably decorated even less than the Lewises, we do have the opportunity at Ferry Farm to show one aspect of early 18th century Christmas that we cannot show in a traditional antique-filled house museum – the use of fragrant herbs.

Early in the 18th century, it was common practice not to decorate one’s home for the holidays, but rather to put the effort into decorating the sanctuary of the local church (if you had one).  Clergymen urged local parishioners to ensure “the church be swept, and kept clean without dust, or cobwebs, and at great festivals strewed, and stuck with boughs.”

For most colonial era churches, incense was an expensive and not easily obtained luxury. To mimic its pleasant smell during holy days, parishioners strew fragrant dried herbs on the floors of the sanctuary.  As the herbs were crushed under foot, they added a pleasant holiday aroma to the room.  Sage, rosemary, and thyme were the most commonly used herbs but lavender and rose petals might also be added.

Herbs on the Hall Back Room floor

Herbs strewn on the floor of the Hall Back Room in the Washington house.

This practice of strewing herbs on the floor was adopted in private homes, too, especially when a household didn’t have a church nearby and services were conducted at home.  Sachets of herbs might also be hung from doorways and windows, and small bundles of herbs might be occasionally tossed into the fire to add to the scent.  The practice served to sanctify the house, but also gave people a break from the never ending parade of bad smells they encountered on a daily basis.

Another common practice among parishioners in decorating their churches was to place sprigs of holly and mistletoe in the muntins of the windows.  Like the strewing of herbs, sprigging the windows found its way into the home and likely was the only greenery early 18th century colonial Virginians like the Washingtons used to mark the season.

Tavern Decorated for Christmas

Although a depiction of a tavern from later in the 18th century, this engraving shows the practice of sprigging the windows at Christmas time still continues. A ball of mistletoe also hangs from the ceiling. Settling the Affairs of the Nation. Engraving; Bowles & Carver, publishers; London, 1775.

At Ferry Farm, because the Washington house is filled with reproduction furnishings, we can use both real herbs on the floors and real sprigs of greenery in the windows.  It may be much less than our 21st century eyes are accustomed to, but the Washingtons would have recognized these signs of the season right away.

This holiday season, we invite you to visit both Ferry Farm and Kenmore to experience these sights and, for the first time this year, the smells of the 18th century’s evolving Christmas celebrations as marked by the Washingtons, the Lewises, and their fellow early Americans.  To learn about visiting Ferry Farm and Kenmore during the holiday season and to see a list of special holiday events, click here.

Meghan Budinger
Aldrich Director of Curatorial Operations

32nd Annual Gingerbread House Contest & Exhibit at Ferry Farm [Photos]

It’s the 32nd year of a a long-standing holiday tradition: the Gingerbread Contest & Exhibit at George Washington’s Ferry Farm!  This year’s theme is “Cartoon Adventures.”

Adults and children alike will enjoy the sights and smells of these festive creations displayed at Ferry Farm!  Ferry Farm’s hours are Monday – Saturday 10:00 a.m. – 4:00 p.m. and Sunday from 12:00 p.m. – 4:00 p.m. Ferry Farm is closed Christmas Eve and Christmas Day. The gingerbread exhibit ends on December 30.  General admission to Ferry Farm and the exhibit is $9 adults, $4.50 students, under 6 free while admission to the exhibit only is $4.50 adults, $2.25 students, under 6 free.

For more information, call (540) 370-0732 x24 or email hayes@gwffoundation.org.

When Christmas Wasn’t for Kids

Merry-Christmas-Ornamental-TypographyPicture it. No Santa. No Christmas tree. No big-ticket Christmas present. No little Susie or Bobby up to their eyes in wrapping paper, as their parents snap a photo of every gift they unwrap.  To die-hard Christmas fans today, this sounds like a nightmare. Where is the wonder and joy? Where is the standing in line or the surfing online all night to find the perfect gift? Where is the fulfilling of little Susie and Bobby’s every Christmas wish?

Christmas, as a celebration, was not always so focused on small children.  Until the 1800s, Christmas was a holiday mainly for adults.  Most of the festivities in the 18th century were designed to provide opportunities to socialize and celebrate with adult family and friends from far and near.  The Twelve Days of Christmas (December 25 – January 6) were a time to make merry, unless you were a kid.

Now, to say that children had no chance to enjoy holiday festivities would be an overstatement but not by much.  Kids made “Christmas pieces,” or cards that they decorated and adorned with poems, for their parents and siblings. This tradition eventually grew into the modern activity of sending Christmas cards.

Christmas Pieces

Reproduction “Christmas pieces” in Betty Washington Lewis’ Bed Chamber at Historic Kenmore.

Colonial children did receive small gifts from friends and family – little presents like books, fruit, and nuts. There was nothing expensive, nothing breakable, and nothing age-inappropriate.  These presents served as small tokens of affection as parents showed children that they were remembered during the season.  Gift-giving in the 1700s was a top-down affair – parents, aunts and uncles, and grandparents could provide little gifts to the children but children were not expected to return the favor.  Modern children might be envious of their 18th century counterparts if they knew that they were off the hook for giving presents to their parents and older siblings.  But Colonial Virginia was a hierarchal society with children near the bottom.  Christmas gift-giving enforced these rules of deference and even at a festive time it remained clear who was firmly in charge.

One reason children were left out of Christmastide festivities in the past may have been just the lack of kid-friendly activities.  Firing guns, going fox hunting, and getting married at a holiday ball weren’t (and, in some cases, still aren’t) activities associated with children.  This is not to say that children did not take delight in these activities when adults did them.

Young boys could not partake in the fox hunt, but it didn’t make it less exciting for them.  Boys admired their fathers, grandfathers, uncles, and brothers as they prepared for the hunt.  Boys who were a little older could watch as their male loved ones dashed off on their horses and into the excitement of the hunt.  George Washington was an enthusiastic fox hunter starting in his-mid teens, at which point a young man would be up to the physical challenge. Boys also surely excitedly watched the men fire guns into the air as a way to say “Happy Christmas!” to the neighbors.

Twelfth Night in Devonshire (1863)

“Twelfth Night in Devonshire” (1863) shows men firing guns to celebrate the holiday in “Das festliche Jahr in Sitten, Gebräuchen und Festen der germanischen Völker” by Otto von Reinsberg-Düringsfeld. Credit: Wikipedia

Girls probably happily helped their mothers or older sisters prepare for the Twelfth Night ball even though they would not attend.  It wasn’t until a boy or girl had gone through puberty that they were ready to go to the ball.  Some children started their dancing lessons early, while others started later.  George Washington was taking lessons by age 16.  Even the nature of the 18th century dancing would have been too difficult for children.  At the beginning of every ball, the guests danced the minuet, a complicated series of steps performed on the tip-toes. This would be nearly impossible for children and their still developing motor skills. Until they were older, little boys and girls admired the festivities from afar.

Couples took advantage of the Christmas balls and family get-togethers to hold weddings.  The 12 days between Christmas and Twelfth Night were a popular time for couples to get married.  Thomas Jefferson married Martha Skelton on January 1, 1772 and George Washington and Martha Dandridge Custis married January 6, 1759.  This was a joyous occasion for the whole family, but the children of the family were certainly not the center of attention.

Perhaps the greatest example of how Christmas in the 18th century wasn’t for kids is the fact that many people, adults and children alike, did not celebrate the day at all.  Seventeenth century Puritans in Massachusetts saw the Christmas celebrations of the Church of England (and, by extension, Virginia celebrations) as a mockery of the Puritans’ devout faith.  “Yuletide is Fooltide” was the attitude and, except for going to church all day on Christmas, Puritan children did not participate in any of the frivolity of the season. At least Virginian children could enjoy the celebrations even if they were not their focus.

More than anything, Christmas provided 18th century children with the chance to learn the etiquette and proper behavior that would be important for them as adults.  Both boys and girls observed how men and women prepared for and behaved during Christmastide and the rest of the year.  That’s right, modern American children, the biggest Christmas gift that 18th century children received was learning how to behave.

Kelly Brennan Arehart
Manager of Interpretation & Visitor Services

Photos: The GWF’s Delightful December

Merry-Christmas-Ornamental-TypographyThe George Washington Foundation wishes everyone a joyous holiday season!  Enjoy these from our month of festive happenings and decorations at George Washington’s Ferry Farm and Historic Kenmore.

There will still be time to see Kenmore and Ferry Farm adorned for the season and delight in each site’s annual display of dollhouses, miniatures, and gingerbread creations until December 30. For details about these exhibits and our holiday hours, visit kenmore.org/events.

Photos: Holiday Decorations at Kenmore & Ferry Farm

The George Washington Foundation wishes everyone a joyous holiday season!  Enjoy these photos of holiday decorations created by wonderful volunteers!  The George Washington Foundation Garden Guild decorated at Historic Kenmore and the Lake Anna Garden Club decorated at George Washington’s Ferry Farm.

Next week, there will still be time to see Kenmore and Ferry Farm adorned for the season as well as each site’s annual display of dollhouses, miniatures, and gingerbread creations. For details about these exhibits and our holiday hours, visit kenmore.org/events.