From Thomas Jefferson Encyclopedia
As it is for many people today, Christmas was for Jefferson a time for family and friends and for celebrations, or in Jefferson's word, "merriment." In 1762, he described Christmas as "The day of greatest mirth and jollity." Although no documents exist to tell us how, or if, Jefferson decorated his Monticello for the holidays, Jefferson noted the festive scene created by his grandchildren. On Christmas Day 1809, he said of eight-year-old grandson Francis Wayles Eppes (shown at right): "He is at this moment running about with his cousins bawling out 'a merry christmas' 'a christmas gift &c . . . .'"
During Jefferson’s time, holiday celebrations were much more modest than those we know today. Socializing and special food would have been the focal points of the winter celebrations rather than decorations or lavish gifts. The customs that we think of today as traditional ways of celebrating Christmas, particularly the decorating of evergreen trees and the hanging of stockings, derived from a variety of national traditions and evolved through the course of the 19th century, only becoming widespread in the 1890s.
References indicate that at Monticello, as throughout Virginia, mince pie—filled with apples, raisins, beef suet, and spices—was a traditional holiday dinner favorite. Jefferson wrote to Mary Walker Lewis on December 25, 1813: "I will take the liberty of sending for some barrels of apples, and if a basket of them can now be sent by the bearer they will be acceptable as accomodated to the season of mince pies." Music also filled the scene. The Monticello music library included the Christmas favorite "Adeste Fideles."
For African-Americans at Monticello, the holiday season represented a time between—a few days when the winter work halted and mirth became the order of the day. The Christmas season came to represent hours when families reunited through visits and when normal routines were set aside. In 1808, Davy Hern traveled all the way to Washington where his wife Fanny worked at the President’s House to be with her for the holidays. Two days before the Christmas of 1813, Bedford Davy, Bartlet, Nace, and Eve set out for Poplar Forest to visit relatives and friends.
During the holidays, women adorned tables with wild game. Freshly slaughtered meats supplemented the usual rations of pork and cornmeal. Gills of molasses sweetened holiday fare and music lifted spirits not fatigued by a harvest but by another full cycle of work in the fields, shops, and living quarters of Monticello.
Enslaved people frequently recalled that Christmas was the only holiday they knew. Many cherished memories of gathering apples and nuts, burning Yule logs, and receiving special tokens of food and clothing.
Original Authors: Mindy Keyes Black, Monticello Department of Development and Public Affairs, November 1996;Updated November 2006 with text by Elizabeth Chew and Dianne Swann-Wright.