Today, Christmas Day is among the biggest of the holidays celebrated in the United States between Thanksgiving Day and New Year’s Day.
In the earliest days of the new nation, however, the manner in which people who observed Christmas as a religious day also marked it as a holiday celebration had as much to do with their regional origins, socioeconomic status, and cultural customs dictated by their particular sect of faith.
While Quakers, Catholics, Presbyterians and Methodists who lived in New England, Mid-Atlantic and the Midwest marked the holiday in their own unique ways, Christmas was an especially celebratory time among the class of wealthy southern plantation families.
In the White House, these holiday celebrations of southern presidential families were organized by the First Ladies with the notable exception of the first one.
In the first fifty years of the American presidency, it was especially First Ladies who had either been born and raised in elite class of the South, or those married to Presidents from this demographic, who made the most of Christmas.
In contrast to the two Adams families of the second and sixth President who were New England Unitarians, for example, families of the “Virginia Dynasty” presidencies of Washington, Jefferson, Madison, Monroe and Tyler were all owners of large plantations and belonged to the less strict Anglican Church, which did not forbid dancing, music, card-playing and alcohol consumption.
Like other wealthy plantation owners, many southern Presidents preserved some of their ancestral English customs, included the marking of “Twelfth Night,” the culmination of twelve consecutive nights after Christmas, with intoxicating eggnogs and punch, dancing and games.
In the late 18th and early 19th centuries, with relatives often having to travel for several days to reach a central plantation, many remained as houseguests for weeks.
Besides the celebration of Christmas and the twelve frolicking days which followed, family weddings often took place during this time, taking advantage of so many relatives under one roof. George and Martha Washington, for example, were married on Twelfth Night in 1759.
Continuing the seasonal custom of dance parties, bourbon eggnog and rounds of card games, at their Mount Vernon plantation, Martha Washington also had a “Great White Cake” made each year, a rich fruitcake which was then frosted.
Martha Jefferson Randolph and her sister Maria Jefferson Eppes are why their father’s happiest Christmas was the one celebrated in 1802.
Rarely leaving their Virginia plantation homes near his own in Monticello, it would prove to be the only one celebrated by the widower Jefferson as President with both of his daughters.
In addition to their husbands, both Congressmen who lived with the President in the White House, they were also joined by six of Martha’s children and Maria’s son.
The President himself did the marketing on Christmas morning, purchasing a large goose and cranberry tarts, which he himself placed on the plates of all the children.
Two other guests were the President’s close friends, Secretary of State James Madison and his wife Dolley Madison. While Martha Randolph helped her father oversee the meal’s preparation, her children were taken by Mrs. Madison for a carriage ride out into the countryside near Georgetown.
During their excursion, she stopped to purchase sprigs of mistletoe from a slave selling it along their path, and decorated the inside of the coach with it. The table was set with eight silver candelabras and the later afternoon meal concluded with games in the oval reception room, now the Blue Room.
Dolley Madison would preside over eight of her own annual Christmas dinners as First Lady but for the final three years of her tenure, those holidays were not celebrated in the White House.
Following the August 1814 burning of the White House by the British during the War of 1812, the presidential family had to find quarters in temporary presidential mansions for the last thirty months of the Madison presidency.
Certainly that first Christmas after being left homeless was the most despondent for Mrs. Madison.
Not only was she living in the nearby, borrowed Octagon House, which was spared the British torch, but her son never arrived home from Europe for Christmas and her siblings John and Lucy never arrived in Washington from Philadelphia.
It got better, however. By the next Christmas, the war was over and Dolley Madison hosted a dinner party on the holiday, serving ice cream and permitting her green parrot to fly freely through the rooms of a second temporary executive mansion on Pennyslvania Avenue.
Certainly the most convivial Christmas she presided over was in the White House, in 1811. That year, at her holiday dinner there, Mrs. Madison was joined by her two sister Lucy Washington and Anna Payne, between whom sat Kentucky Congressman Henry Clay.
Also joining them was a future President and First Lady, James and Elizabeth Monroe. After Monroe raised his glass to all the ladies present, the entire group repaired to the oval room, furnished in a yellow gold color, and sat down for hours of loo, Dolley Madison’s favorite card game.
At Christmas 1835, the Southern First Lady who presided at the White House was not a Virginian but rather a Tennessean, Emily Donelson, who had assumed the role during nearly all of the presidency of her widowed uncle Andrew Jackson.
The mother of four small children, three of whom were born in the executive mansion, Emily Donelson was twenty-eight years old but conducted herself with authority.
Emily was a strict disciplinarian with her children but the day before Christmas the President himself intervened with her when the young ones asked to use his room and prepare their gifts for adults. “Spare the rod and spoil the child,” Mrs. Donelson quipped with disapproval when the President insisted he relinquish his room for them.
In the meanwhile, she directed the Jackson slaves brought from the President’s Nashville mansion to decorate the state floor with holly leaves and cedar wood branches, with evergreens in the East Room.
Alongside wrapped gifts being given among family members, she also had silver punchbowls filled with a frothy, intoxicating eggnog placed on the tables in the center hall of the second floor, into which all the family rooms opened. Christmas dinner that year sounded more like a fancy buffet brunch, the dining room table laid out carefully with artfully designed displays of the food.
On Christmas morning, Emily Donelson had the children file into a small corner where they each received a stocking stuffed with candy, nuts and fruit. Immediately afterwards, she called up the presidential carriage and made a round of afternoon calls to her circle of the capital’s most elite social leaders, all of whom she counted as her friends.
As her daughter later recalled, Emily Donelson had “that love of pleasure and desire to please natural to young, attractive women.”
One of those society women befriended by the First Lady was Cora Livingston, a young woman from a prominent family who had come to help Emily Donelson at the White House by taking charge of the children throughout the day’s festivities.
Emily Donelson was also sure to have mistletoe hung from the chandeliers in the East Room, a gesture without subtlety as she was known to be encouraging a romance between Cora and the widowed Vice President Martin Van Buren, both of whom were guests at a children’s party hosted that holiday season for the Jackson family children and their little guests.
Eager to please the Jackson family, the Vice President even amused the children by dancing on one leg and gobbling like a turkey when that was what a play game called for when it was his turn to draw.
During the children’s party, Emily Donelson remained with the adults in the Red Room, but never managed to get far in prompting the Vice President and her friend Cora into a deeper romance.
Van Buren apparently had his limits in pleasing the Jacksons.
Despite frail health and limited mobility resulting from a stroke, Letitia Tyler continued to direct the presidential household for the year and a half that she lived in the White House before her September 1842 death there.
So very little is known about her, yet a careful reading of first-hand accounts suggest that she was not nearly as invisible as later chroniclers claimed, appearing in public at a daughter’s White House wedding and joining a family theater party.
Certainly we know that Christmas had long been a time of especial delight to Letitia Tyler.
Fifteen years earlier, the future President wrote a letter home to her, the day after Christmas, feeling neglected and gently chastising her that, “Are you all so much taken up with your Christmas frolics as to have forgotten me?” He also wrote his daughter Mary that, “I do think your mother might have stolen one hour to devote to me.”
Other clues must be used to determine what Christmas for this disabled First Lady meant.
Just two years earlier, her daughter-in-law Priscilla Cooper Tyler reported that Letitia Tyler, who was first beset by the stroke’s paralysis a few months before, remained in her “chamber,” a large quiet bedroom at the far side of the Tyler family home in Williamsburg, Virginia:
“Notwithstanding her very delicate health, mother attends to and regulates all the household affairs and all so quietly that you can’t tell when she does it,” Priscilla wrote. “All the cakes, jellies, custards, and we indulge largely in them, emanate from her, yet you see no confusion, hear no bustle, but only meet with agreeable results…”
Another clue is a remark attributed to her, dating from her daughter Elizabeth’s White House wedding, in which she insisted that all the guests must dance and enjoy themselves despite her own inability to join in.
Finally, it is known that during the Tyler family’s White House Christmas of 1842, the by-then widowed President oversaw a dinner of friends and family which included alcoholic eggnog among other treats.
From all this it is a safe assumption that Letitia Tyler was still very much enjoying the holiday during her only one spent in the White House, surrounded by her family, encouraging their spiritedness, and merry drinking even though she had to remain seated throughout the festivities.
Like Letitia Tyler, Margaret “Peggy” Taylor did not assume the role of public hostess during her tenure as First Lady, relinquishing it to her daughter Betty Bliss.
However, she was the undisputed leader of the especially convivial social life at the White House which took place on the second floor, appropriating from the executive offices the large room where today’s Treaty Room as her own reception room.
During the only Christmas she was to enjoy as First Lady, Peggy Taylor’s reception room was the central gathering point for the dozen or so kinfolk who stayed as house guests of the presidential family, arriving from Maryland, Louisiana, Mississippi, Virginia and Kentucky.
While the young children, including the First Lady’s beloved grandchildren, remained in the family quarters, busy with the many overnight relatives there, the young women dressed in fancy gowns to attend the endless nights of dancing at holiday balls.
All was not as joyful as it seemed for the First Lady, however. Despite the pleasure of seeing so many of her relatives and those of her husband, there was one family member whose absence was glaringly painful.
While the precise facts are unknown, there was some enough of an estrangement between the President and his only son, Richard. Instead of joining his family for Christmas, the First Son remained at his home, managing one of the Taylor cotton plantations.
Despite his especial closeness to his mother, Richard Taylor was never invited to come visit the White House. Not until his father died and his mother came to live with him would Richard and she be reunited.
Still, Peggy Taylor remained busy as hostess of the full house. A descendant would later claim that the First Lady’s great pride was seeing to the proper baking and decorating of old-fashioned coconut cakes, traditional southern dessert at Christmas, among the long buffet tables of food which she made available for the relatives coming and going during the holiday and frequently replenished.
Not all of the southern First Ladies during the antebellum period which preceded the Civil War celebrated Christmas with as expansive a spirit as did Martha Randolph, Dolley Madison, Emily Donelson, Letitia Tyler and Peggy Taylor.
Certainly Sarah Polk was an accomplished hostess who treated her dinner guests with a lavish touch, but it was her strict adherence to the tenets of her Methodist faith which dictated her modest marking of the Christmas holiday. She never permitted dancing, card-playing or hard liquor to be served in the White House.
Another factor which may have led Sarah Polk to treat Christmas Day without fanfare was the lack of any young presidential children or grandchildren living in the White House with her, being one of the few First Ladies who never gave birth. Too, although the holiday fell during the capital city’s social season of balls, dinners, dances and parties, it was not yet the central focus in that era.
In 1845, during her first Christmas as First Lady, Sarah Polk did have her sister’s daughter living with her as a companion in the White House. Young Joanna Rucker was a close observer of the habits of capital society at the time. She noted that the city seemed to be universally quiet, with most people attending services in the various denominational churches.
Raised in the same faith of her aunt, Miss Rucker nevertheless had a curiosity about other faiths and that Christmas decided to attend a Catholic mass, finding it “a great deal of ceremony, burning of incense and a great deal of nonsense to me, but I say ‘everyone to his notion.’”
Two years later, Christmas Day fell on a day of the week when Sarah Polk usually hosted public receptions.
She kept it scheduled as such, rather than hosting a holiday party or even a special family dinner.
As President Polk bowed to guests while standing in front of a warm fire, the “shrewd and sensible” First Lady Polk was described as “engaged in lively conversation.”
There was no eggnog offered to guests, alcoholic or otherwise.