Christmas with the Jacksons
Volunteers in period dress churn butter during last year's Christmas with the Jacksons event. -- VMI File Photo by John Robertson IV.
Lexington, Va., Dec. 5, 2012 – The Stonewall Jackson House Christmas with the Jacksons event this Friday, Dec. 7, will offer candlelight tours, seasonal music, and discounts on popular items and stocking stuffers in the museum shop. The event will run from 5:30 to 7 p.m. and will benefit the Rockbridge Area Relief Association food pantry. Admission will be canned or other non-perishable food for the pantry.
Visitors will have the opportunity to tour the house by candlelight and learn about 19th-century Christmas traditions from costumed tour guides stationed throughout the house. They will have the chance to try on period clothing, add decorations to the parlor tree, and churn butter in the kitchen, while enjoying seasonal music. Complimentary hot cider and homemade gingersnaps will be available at the conclusion of the tour.
From a modern viewpoint, the most notable aspect of Christmas in the Valley of Virginia during the mid-19th century was the relative lack of any observations at all. In the early years of the 19th century, many people still viewed Christmas with some disapproval because it connoted “pagan foolishness.” The lavish gifts, elaborate manufactured decorations, and joyous festivities associated with the “Victorian Christmas” were largely a product of the late 19th century.
Maj. Thomas J. Jackson, a professor at Virginia Military Institute, had one day of leisure at Christmas. The superintendent of the VMI ordered “the usual suspension of academic duties” for Christmas day only. There was no regular Christmas furlough for the Corps of Cadets until the 1920s.
Because there is little documentation on how the Jacksons decorated their house during the Christmas season, or even if they did so at all, the house is decorated according to mid-19th century traditions. Customarily, greens were gathered from the local countryside and arranged in a pleasing fashion around the house. Mid-19th century prints show wreaths hung at the windows rather than on front doors. The slender wreaths of ivy displayed in the windows of the Stonewall Jackson House are based on these sources.
Mrs. Mary Anna Jackson wrote in her Memoirs that at Christmas her husband was generous with presents for the household servants (who were slaves) and “frequently gave them small sums of money.”
There is no record of the Jacksons displaying a Christmas tree in their home on Washington Street. However, they were aware of the custom because their good friends, Col. and Mrs. J.T.L. Preston, displayed a Christmas tree in 1860. During the mid-19th century, if a family had a Christmas tree it was customarily placed on a table in the parlor and lighted with candles once, as a special treat. Family and friends frequently gathered around the tree to enjoy the sight. Christmas trees were originally present-bearers, decorated with gifts of toys and edibles. Many of the gifts tied to the tree were simple handmade items such as pen-wipers or needle cases. Pencils wrapped in paper were popular gifts.
The Stonewall Jackson House is the only house that the Confederate general, Thomas J. “Stonewall” Jackson, ever owned. The house is now owned by the Virginia Military Institute, where Jackson taught, and operated by the VMI museum system. For further information on Christmas with the Jacksons and the Stonewall Jackson House, call 540-464-7704 or visit www.stonewalljackson.org.