Kenmore is currently decorated for Christmas, portraying what it may have looked like during the Christmas season of 1775. At that time, the Lewis family would have just moved in to Kenmore a couple of months earlier, and it would have been their first Christmas in the new house. It was also a time of some sadness, as well – their 15 year old son Charles had died that fall, of an unidentified illness. Charles would be the last of the Lewis children to pass away before reaching adulthood.
Christmas of 1775 was significant for another reason, as well. It would be the last “normal” holiday before the Revolution began in earnest. The Lewis family did not know it at the time, but any celebrations of the season held at Kenmore that year would be both the first and last of the lavish parties that Kenmore was built for. Once the war began, Fielding’s fortune quickly disappeared, family members marched off to battle, and Fredericksburg became a city on the frontlines. Parties were the last thing the family was concerned with.
Despite the uncertainty of that time, Christmas was always a bright spot in the dark winter months of colonial Virginia. Christmas was celebrated more in Virginia perhaps than any other American colony. Philip Vickers Fithian wrote that “Virginians will dance, or they will die”, and Christmas was a time for them to dance literally until the sun came up, at any number of holiday balls and less formal impromptu gatherings. And of course, in the 18th century, there was far more time to have these balls and gatherings. The Christmas season lasted much longer than ours does, extending into January to Twelfth Night (a festive night marking the end of the Twelve Days of Christmas and celebrated much like our New Year’s Eve is today). This year at Kenmore, we have chosen to show Kenmore as if it was getting ready for a Twelfth Night ball following that unusual year of 1775.
Signs of Christmas are found throughout the house, although not always in the way we think of them today. Colonial-era decorations were much more subdued. Evergreens and local plant material, like boxwood, magnolia and holly would be brought into the house, but in small quantities. Branches of pine or holly would be placed in clay jars and set on tables or mantels. Sometimes small sprigs of greenery were stuck between the window panes, and occasionally aromatic herbs were strewn across the floor to create a pleasing scent in the house. These types of decorations can be seen throughout Kenmore, in addition to the decorated banister on the staircase in the Passage.
Although there was no traditional Christmas food such as ham or goose at the time, food and drink did play a huge part in the celebration. During the course of a ball, usually around midnight, guests were treated to the unveiling of an elaborate dessert table, filled to overflowing with sweets and confections arranged in imaginative ways and displayed on the best silver and glassware. The lady of the house would be severely judged on the creativity of her dessert table. In the Passage at Kenmore, we have recreated a dessert table as Betty Lewis might have impressed her guests with in 1775. The table features plum pudding, miniature marzipan fruits, candied citrus, syllabubs and a “hedge hog” cake (a favorite of Martha Washington’s at Mount Vernon).
In the Drawing Room, the Christmas season is signified by the presence of the punch bowl. Strong, alcoholic punch was often set out for guests to refresh themselves throughout the evening. The punch bowl was considered a symbol of hospitality, and it was poor form to leave the party before the bowl was dry. Wine, ale and madeira were also served during a party, and cellarettes containing bottles of spirits can be found in both the Dining Room and Drawing Room, waiting to serve thirsty guests.
There were two main activities at a ball – dancing, of course, and gossiping/debating over the politics of the day. The Dining Room is set up to illustrate the dancing, with all of the furnishings – tables, chairs, sideboards, etc. – pushed against the walls to make room for the revelers in the middle. Hired musicians, usually fiddlers and harpsichord players, would play in one corner, and a dance master would call the dances. The Drawing Room illustrates the second activity. In that room, a gentlemen’s card game is taking place at a gaming table, and as it was probably gambling of some kind, no ladies were present. Here, arguments could be had over the situation with Great Britain, and loud toasts to the health of General Washington could be made.
Of course, the Lewis family members were not the only ones who experienced the Christmas season in Kenmore. The small room off the side passage has been set up to accommodate several house slaves, who would have seen their workload doubled during the holiday season. Visitors, dinners and balls meant an endless array of chores, cleaning and cooking. Overnight guests would have been expected to give the house slaves tips during the Christmas season. A small bag of coins and a simple supper served on wooden plates has been set out on the hearth in the small room, waiting to be eaten by the servants when they have a free moment to do so.
Christmas of 1775 was certainly a pivotal time for the Lewis family, and for the course of history at Kenmore. Despite hardships, and some very dark days ahead, this family made the most of it and created their own bit of light here in Fredericksburg.
Want to see Kenmore in all of its holiday splendor? Seasonal tours are offered daily through December, and a very special candlelight tour of the house featuring live period music and dancers, as well as a dramatic presentation will be held on January 4th to celebrate Twelfth Night. See our events page for more information!