Skip to main content

Food

Christmas Dinner at Mount Vernon

January 2021

Roast pig, boiled rockfish, and apple pie were among the dishes George and Martha enjoyed during the holiday in 1797. Here are some actual recipes.

George & martha
George and Martha were married on January 6, the "Twelfth Night" in the Christian celebration of the nativity of Jesus. 

Christmas was an especially meaningful holiday at Mount Vernon. George and Martha Washington were married on Twelfth Night in 1759, and throughout their lives they tried to spend the Christmas holiday season together. Even during the Revolution, Martha Washington traveled the winter roads with a military escort to join the General in his winter quarters.

"Gentlemen ... I have a cook who never asks whether the company has come, but whether the hour has come."

Dinner at Mount Vernon was customarily served at three o'clock in the afternoon—an hour about which the General was altogether precise. He was likely to tell late guests, "Gentlemen ... I have a cook who never asks whether the company has come, but whether the hour has come." (Martha was equally punctual. In 1790, she concluded an evening party promptly at nine o'clock by rising and announcing to her company, "The General always retires at nine, and I usually precede him.")

In the prevailing fashion, dinner was served in three courses and on two tablecloths. One cloth was removed between each course, and the fruit, nuts, and wines were served on the bare table. In the center of the table was an elegant epergne, and handsome platters containing meats and fish were placed symmetrically about the table—with a suitable assortment of vegetables and "corner dishes" of sauces, relishes, and preserves located at other appropriate spots.

Dinners were customarily concluded with toasts around the table. In 1789 William Maclay, a senator from Pennsylvania, was guest at a dinner party with the President and Mrs. Washington, Vice-President and Mrs. Adams, and several others. At the end of the meal, Maclay reported, "the President, filling a glass of wine with great formality drank to the health of every individual name by name round the table. Everybody imitated him, charged glasses, and such a buzz of 'health, sir,' and 'health, madam,' and 'thank you, sir' and `thank you, madam,' never had I heard before. Indeed, I had liked to have been thrown out in the hurry; but I got a little wine in my glass, and passed the ceremony. The ladies sat a good while, and the bottle passed about; but there was a dead silence almost. Mrs. Washington at last withdrew with the ladies."

mt vernon dinner
Visitors to Mount Vernon today can take a "holiday dinner tour" to see how the Washingtons' meal was prepared and served. 

The list of Christmas foods that follow is a composite of meals served at Mount Vernon, made up of dishes that were available there in winter. Visitors to Mount Vernon were given to incomplete accounts, like that of Amariah Frost, who dined with the Washingtons in 1797 and reported, "The dinner was very good, a small roasted pigg, boiled leg of lamb, roasted Fowles, beef, peas, lettice, cucumbers, artichokes, etc. puddings, tarts, etc. etc." In compiling this menu the etceteras have been replaced by recourse to various guests' reports, garden books, farm records, and invoices of goods ordered from merchants.

CHRISTMAS DINNER - DISHES SERVED AT MOUNT VERNON

We hope you enjoyed this essay.

Please support this 70-year tradition of trusted historical writing and the volunteers that sustain it with a donation to American Heritage.

Donate