From Thomas Jefferson Encyclopedia

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Francis Wayles Eppes; photo by Edward Owen
Francis Wayles Eppes; photo by Edward Owen

As it is for many people today, Christmas[1] 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.[2]

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."[3]

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.

Christmas in the Enslaved Community (Primary Source References)[4]

1790 December. "To 2 1/2 Gallons Whiskey at Christmass for the Negroes." (Nicholas Lewis, Monticello steward, accounts in Ledger 1767-1770)

1797 December 2. "Tell Mr. Eppes that I have orders for a sufficient force to begin and finish his house during the winter after the Christmas holidays; so that his people may come safely after New year's day." (Jefferson to Maria J. Eppes)

1808 November 17.' "Davy Has Petitioned for leave to come to see his wife at Christmass." (Edmund Bacon, Monticello overseer, to Thomas Jefferson - University of Virginia)

1808 November 22. "I approve of your permitting Davy to come [to Washington] at Christmas." (Jefferson to Edmund Bacon - Massachusetts Historical Society)

1810 August 17. "I agreed to take them [hired slaves] at that price and they were to come to me after the Christmas Hollidays when their time with him was out." (Jefferson to W. Chamberlayne, Farm Book 30?)

1813 December 24. "We shall begin to send [flour] from hence immediately after the Christmas holidays." (Jefferson to Patrick Gibson, Library of Congress)

1814 December 23. Davy, Bartlet, Nace and Eve set out this morning for Poplar Forest. Let them start on their return with the hogs the day after your holidays end, which I suppose will be on Wednesday night [Dec. 28], so that they may set out Thursday morning." (Jefferson to Jeremiah Goodman, overseer, GB 535)

1818 December 24. "Your two boys Dick and Moses arrived here on Monday night last [Dec. 21]. Both on horse back without a pass, but said they had your permission to visit their friends here this Xmass." (Joel Yancey, Poplar Forest, to Jefferson - Massachusetts Historical Society)

1819 January 1. "The old mode of keeping Christmas seems to be going tenerally out of fashion. It has changed very much since my recollection. Formerly all classes of society kept it as a kind of feast. It is now merely kept by labouring people. All other classes of society resume their accustomed occupations, after Christmas day. Perhaps no period for mirth and relaxation can with greater propriety be chosen by have ceased and before commencing the new year they devote to mirth and relaxation a few days at the close of the year." (John Wayles Eppes to Francis Wayles Eppes - Duke University)

1821 December 27. "This Christmas has passed away hitherto as quietly as I wished and a great deal more so than I expected. I have not had a single application to write passes or done or seen any of the little disagreeable business that we generally have to do and except catching the sound of a fiddle yesterday on my way to the smokehouse and getting a glimpse of the fiddler as he stood with half closed eyes and head thrown back with one foot keeping time to his own scraping in the midst of a circle of attentive and admiring auditors I have not seen or heard any thing like Christmas gambols and what is yet more extraordinary have not ordered the death of a single turkey or helped to do execution on a solitary mince pie wo you see you lost nothing by being on the road this week." (Mary Jefferson Randolph to Virginia Jefferson Randolph, University of North Carolina)


  1. This article is based on Mindy Keyes Black, Monticello Department of Development and Public Affairs, November 1996; Updated November 2006 with text by Elizabeth Chew and Dianne Swann-Wright.
  2. For more information on Christmas traditions developed later in the 19th century, see Stephen Nissenbaum's The Battle for Christmas (New York: Vintage Books, 1997).
  3. See "Collections of Jefferson Family Music" held at the University of Virginia Special Collections at
  4. Based on compilation by L.C. Stanton, Monticello Research Department, December 1990; revised November 1991.

Further Sources