George Washington saw more than 60 Christmas’s in his lifetime—some joyful and some not so much. We know of some of the darker Christmases such as Valley Forge. But before that, in 1751, when George was only 19, he sailed to Barbadoes with his half-brother Lawrence hoping the warm weather would cure his tuberculosis. Lawrence did not recover and George spent much of the time sick himself. He returned to Virginia by ship and celebrated that Christmas with an Irish goose and many toasts—a far cry from his Virginia celebrations.Many of his Christmases were spent on military maneuvers and in the midst of war. But in 1758 he met the widow Martha Dandridge Parke Custis at a friend’s house. The two wasted no time and planned their wedding for Twelfth Night, January 6, 1759. Eggnog was a common drink at weddings and Washington’s recipe included a pint of brandy, some rye whisky and Jamaica rum. To this mixture he added a healthy dose of mellow sherry to provide the drink with “good fumes.”
The holidays brought friends and family to Mount Vernon as well as admirers from abroad. Washington called Mount Vernon a “well resorted tavern.” A typical holiday menu would consist of Martha’s capon stuffed with oysters, her roast veal stuffed with herbed dressing, pies rich with various meats and savory with herbs grown and cured on the farm. But Martha’s Great Cake took center stage.
Take 40 eggs & divide the whites from the yolks & beat them to a froth start work 4 pounds of butter to a cream & put the whites of eggs to it a spoon full at a time till it is well work’d then put 4 pounds of sugar finely powdered to it in the same manner then put in the Youlks of eggs & 5 pounds of flower & 5 pounds of fruit. 2 hours will bake it add to it half an ounce of mace 1 nutmeg half a pint of wine & some frensh brandy.
To read more about the Washington’s and celebrations check out Christmas with the Washingtons: being a special account of traditional rites observed in Virginia and historic Yuletides of one First Family, the Washingtons of Mount Vernon by Olive Bailey in Boatwright’s Special Colllections.