Christmas Huzzah! & Mrs. Washington’s Holiday Cake
by Susan Dale
As opposed to today’s grinches who every year predictably do everything they can to obliterate Christmas, and who work diligently to eradicate even vestigial remnants of the blessed event, most 18th Century Americans loved Christmas, especially in the Southern part of the new United States, and celebrated it with great joy.
It was actually the festival of 12th Night, and not Christmas, per se, that was celebrated at that time. The festival started on December 25th and the last night of the celebration was that of Twelfth Night, which was January 6th. Considered to be the luckiest day of the year, it was a very popular day for people at that time to host a ball, party or fete of some kind.
It was also the date of the wedding of our first and greatest leader, George Washington, and his beloved Martha. Had General Washington lived into the new century, and not died as he did on December 17, 1799, he and his wife would have been married for 40 years.
The celebration of Christmas was a wonder to behold. Houses and churches were replete with decorations for the holiday, with both filled with boughs and other greenery, such as holly, ivy and laurel, as well as berries, scented herbs and lavender which were added to ensure a lovely aroma. Mistletoe was also extremely popular as a decoration, being used for its traditional and somewhat risqué purpose.
It would seem that the 18th Century Christmas was similar in many ways to our Christmas of today, but there are in fact some major differences. Post-Revolutionary War Christmases were not focused on children, but rather on activities involving adults. There was also an emphasis on the religious aspect of the holiday, to which the entire family adhered. Also, the giving of presents did not have the significance it has today. If presents were given at all, it was usually only one gift, and it was more often than not presented from the landowner to the servant, or the master to the apprentice, and the practice was not a reciprocal one.
Food was, as it is today, a major part of the celebration of Christmas in the 18th Century. Splendid feasts were regularly held which included friends and family, and numerous balls, fetes and hunts invariably took place within the time of the holiday. Hams, roasts, wild boars and turkeys were served as the main course at Christmas dinners, which was just one of the numerous courses featured at a table at that time. Other delicacies, depending on the largesse of the property, were also featured, often including oysters, fish, other fowl, bread, cheeses, corn, lima beans, mincemeat pies, brandied peaches cranberries, and sweet potatoes, (which at the time were actually not potatoes at all but a form of yam). There was also something quite special that was produced and served at that time of the year in America, and that was called, appropriately enough, the ‘Christmas Pye.’ It was comprised of the following:
“First make a good Standing Crust, let the Wall and Bottom be very thick, bone a Turkey, a Goose, a Fowl, a Partridge, and a Pigeon, season them all very well, take half an Ounce of Mace, half an Ounce of Nutmegs, a quarter of an Ounce of Cloves, half and Ounce of black Pepper, all beat fine together, two large Spoonfuls of Salt, mix them together. Open the Fowls, then the Goose, and then the Turkey, which must be large; season them all well first, and lay them in the Crust, so as it will look only like a whole Turkey; then have a hare ready cased, and wiped with a clean Cloth. Cut it to Pieces, that is jointed; season it, and lay it as close as you can on one Side; on the other Side Woodcock, more Game, and what Sort of wild Fowl you can get. Season them well, and lay them close; put at least four Pounds of Butter into the Pye, then lay on your Lid, which must be very a very thick one, and let it be well baked. It must have a very hot Oven, and will take at least four Hours. This Pye will take a Bushel of Flour; in this Chapter you will see how to make it. These Pies are often sent to London in a Box as Presents; therefore the Walls must be well built."
There is in fact a wonderful tale of an American who was so entranced by this ‘Pye’ that he packed it up, arranged to have it shipped to friends in London, which was a voyage that ordinarily took at least three months. It was said that the ‘pye’ arrived in fine and delicious form, and was merrily consumed by the British recipients with no ill effects.
Americans of the 18th Century also had a tremendous sweet tooth, and there were some very special desserts prepared for the holidays. Perhaps the most special of these was Mrs. Washington’s ‘Christmas cake,’ which was comprised of and by the following:
"Take 40 eggs and divide the whites from the yolks & beat them to a froth then work 4 pounds of butter to a cream & put the whites of eggs to it a Spoon full at a time till it is well work'd then put 4 pounds of sugar finely powderd [sic] to it in the same manner then put in the Youlks [sic] of eggs & 5 pounds of flower [sic] & 5 pounds of fruit. 2 hours will bake it add to it half an ounce of mace & nutmeg half a pint of wine & some fresh brandy."
These wonderful feasts were accompanied, as was the habit in 18th Century America, by copious wines, brandies and other spirits. Eggnog was also served; in fact, at the home of George Washington, and it was from the special recipe of the General himself; he was known to actually make it himself. His recipe for eggnog was a bit heavy on the spirits: ‘one quart of cream, one quart of milk, a dozen eggs, one pint of brandy, a half pint of rye, a quarter pint of rum and a quarter pint of sherry.’
George Washington’s home, Mount Vernon, was perennially full of guests, most especially at Christmastime, and it would seem that several glasses of Washington's eggnog would have certainly put the Christmas party-goer in a joyous Christmas spirit. The traditional ‘wassail’ bowl (also full of various spirits, basically whatever was at hand) was also ever present during the festivity. This was from the Anglo-Saxon term ‘wassailing,’ which meant ‘salutation drinking from a bowl.’ This came from the old English, Wass Hael, which was to say "Be in health," and the bowl to be kept full from Christmas Eve until the Twelfth Night.
There were also some rather unorthodox ways in which the 18th Century Americans celebrated Christmas, one of the most remarkable of which was George Washington’s decision, in his desire to celebrate Christmas’ Gift of the Magi, to import to his home a very special guest. The General always had a fascination with exotic animals, and so for Christmas in 1787, he paid 18 shillings and rented a camel to spend the holidays at Mount Vernon for the enjoyment of his guests.
It has not been recorded how the camel felt about his stay in such northern climes. .
Christmas carols were a very popular form of holiday enjoyment during the season and were religious in nature. "Joy to the World," a tune written in the 1760’s, had become a beloved hymn, and some of the other popular carols and hymns sung during the 18th Century Christmas season included: "The First Noel", "God Rest You (or ‘Ye’) Merry Gentlemen", and "I Saw Three Ships".
While it was to be more than a century later that Christmas trees came into use, it is 18th Century legend that the first Christmas trees in America were in fact the Tannenbaums (German for fir trees), which were introduced by Hessian mercenaries fighting in the Revolutionary War on behalf of the British where they were stationed.
In the spirit of the season, therefore, I suggest that the American people of 2010, who have so much to celebrate, raise a glass or three of eggnog and wassail, and toast, well, so many things. To George Washington and our Founders, Huzzah! To 2011 and the Congress that will change everything, Huzzah!
Merry Christmas, you wonderful Americans!
"My ardent desire is, and my aim has been ... to comply strictly with all our engagements foreign and domestic; but to keep the United States free from political connections with every other country. To see that they may be independent of all, and under the influence of none. In a word, I want an American character, that the powers of Europe may be convinced we act for ourselves and not for others; this, in my judgment, is the only way to be respected abroad and happy at home." --George Washington, letter to Partick Henry, 1775