"I embrace you...with a thousand wishes for your happiness and prosperity on every and many Christmas days to come." – Dolley Madison
During the eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries, Christmas was primarily celebrated through fellowship, festive entertainment, visits to neighbors and family, and holiday tidings sent to friends and loved ones. While there is no evidence to suggest that holiday decorations were placed in the interior or the exterior of Montpelier during the Madisons’ time, James and Dolley had other Christmas traditions.
Special meals and parties marked their festivities. From Washington, the presidential first family hosted Christmas dinners for visiting diplomats far from home. In Ghent, John Payne Todd shared eggnog with friends – “a liquor which the Americans used to treat their friends on Christmas Day.”1 In 1829, Dolley “dined at Major Gibbons on Xmass day, & Betsy [Coles] had a large party in the Evg.”2 During December 1834, Anna Payne, Dolley’s niece and longtime companion, attended a dancing party with her sisters to celebrate the holiday.3
The Madisons also kept the holiday season by exchanging festive greetings with their friends and family. In a letter to Mary Ann Fort Mason, Dolley prayed her friend would “Accept for yourself and sweet children my best wishes for the happiest Christmas.”4 Similarly, Sarah Coles Stevenson wished Dolley “A merry Christmas, & happy New Year to you all my dear friends!”5
The Madisons and their contemporaries gave gifts during the Yuletide season, though it was usually through small tokens of affection, like food, books, and trinkets. One year, Caroline E. Shipman sent Dolley a Kentucky ham “as a slight tribute of [her] Homage and Respect.”6 It was also traditional for slaves to be given time off around Christmas. Currently, we do not have any specific information regarding this practice at Montpelier nor do we know if Madison gave his slaves tips or small gifts for the holiday, as did some slave owners. However, in his 1829 journal, John Payne Todd made a curious entry stating he needed “To get a Christmas gift for daughter washerwoman 0.25cts.”7
Everyone at Montpelier wishes you and yours a very joyous holiday season, and suggest you do as Dolley: “keep the Christmas from this time to New Years Day.”8
1. “Ghent, Dec. 25,” Baltimore Patriot (Baltimore, Md.)
2. Dolley Payne Todd Madison to Anna Payne Cutts, December 28, 1829, Cutts Family Collection of Papers of James and Dolley Madison, Library of Congress, Washington, DC.
3. Dolley Payne Todd Madison to Mary Estelle Elizabeth Cutts, December 11, 1834, Cutts Family Collection of Papers of James and Dolley Madison, Library of Congress, Washington, DC.
4. Dolley Payne Todd Madison to Mary Ann fort Mason, n.d., Papers of Dolley Madison, Library of Congress, Washington, DC.
5. Sarah Coles Stevenson to Dolley Payne Todd Madison, December 24, 1834, Library of Virginia, Richmond, Virginia.
6. Caroline E. Shipman Duncan to Dolley Payne Todd Madison, December n.y., Papers of Dolley Madison, Library of Congress, Washington, DC.
7. John Payne Todd, Journal, 1829, John Payne Todd, Journals and Essays, Presbyterian Historical Society, Philadelphia, Pennsylvania.
8.Madison to Cutts, December 11, 1834.