Christmas Stories from Monticello
UVA students have always worked hard, and by the time the winter holidays arrive, they’ve earned a break from their studies in Charlottesville. In Thomas Jefferson’s time, long before “The Night before Christmas” was a twinkle in author Clement Clarke Moore’s eye, the town would fall quiet and dark (there were no Christmas lights either).
For a moment of reflection, let’s consider how Christmas in Charlottesville was observed at Monticello. There, according to Linnea Grim, the Hunter J. Smith Director of Education and Visitor Programs, “the holidays revolved around family, music, and food.”
“There were a great many visitors and celebrations at Monticello around the Christmas period,” says Ms. Grim. She points to a letter written by Martha Jefferson Randolph to her father Thomas Jefferson in January 1796:
“We have spent holidays and indeed every day in such a perpetual round of visiting and receiving visits that I have not had a moment to my self since I came down.”
Ms. Grim recounts a lesser-known Monticello holiday story that includes a dreary end to a romantic sojourn. Thomas and Martha Wayles Skelton Jefferson married during the Christmas season on January 1, 1772. Their great-granddaughter Sarah Nicholas Randolph recounted the family story of their arrival at Monticello as newlyweds. “They left The Forest after a fall of snow, light then, but increasing in depth as they advanced up the country. They were finally obliged to quit the carriage and proceed on horseback. Having stopped for a short time at Blenheim, where an overseer only resided, they left it at sunset to pursue their way through a mountain track rather than a road, in which the snow lay from eighteen inches to two feet deep, having eight miles to go before reaching Monticello. They arrived late at night, the fires all out and the servants retired to their own houses for the night. The horrible dreariness of such a house at the end of such a journey I have often heard both relate.”
Ms. Grim also shares a glimpse of how slaves would have experienced the respite of Christmas. Records from the time indicate that enslaved people requested and sometimes received a rare opportunity to spend time with family during holidays. Jefferson’s ownership of Poplar Forest and Monticello meant he separated families between the two plantations. Over the holiday, family members gathered: “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…” (Thomas Jefferson to Jeremiah Goodman, 1814 December 23). “Your two boys Dick and Moses arrived here on Monday night last . Both on horseback without a pass, but said they had your permission to visit their friends here this Xmass” (Joel Yancey to Thomas Jefferson, 1818 December 24).
Monticello’s bounty has always been the setting’s unique ability to transform our consciousness in the tension between past and future.