The date of my letter reminds me of the compliments which belong to the Season. I offer them with the sincerest wish that they may yet often be repeated to you, and that the state of health in which this will find you, may promise that satisfaction to all your friends, among whom no one will enjoy it in a higher degree than Your affecte. & Obedt. servt.                        James Madison to Edmund Pendleton, January 2, 1791 [1]

James and Dolley Madison never sent a single Christmas card. Pre-printed Christmas cards were introduced in England in 1843 (seven years after James died), and began to be produced in the United States in the 1870s (over twenty years after Dolley’s death).

Although the Madisons didn’t send Christmas cards, the letters they wrote in late December and early January sometimes included good wishes for the season, or mentioned what they were doing that particular Christmas. (Christmas customs in eighteenth and early nineteenth century Virginia were much less elaborate than the holiday traditions we celebrate today, with more emphasis on hospitality, and less on gifts and decorations.) By searching on the “Christmas” keyword in the Montpelier Research Database, we can catch glimpses of Christmas observances in the Madison household in various years.

Sometimes the Madisons mentioned Christmas simply as a way to mark time. In November 1790, James Madison left instructions for enslaved overseer Sawney “To plant about 200 apple Trees either before Christmas or very early in the Spring, in the little field on the top of the Mountain.”[2] In this instance, Christmas was noted not because it was a holiday, but because it would likely become too cold after Christmas to plant the trees.

James Madison’s brother William also mentioned Christmas in a letter related to agricultural operations. The Madison brothers owned a mill, and William was encountering difficulties in getting James’s wheat ground into flour and carried to market. Writing on December 25, 1810, William complained:

The holladays will interrupt the Waggons a few days. Every effort shall be used to get the Flour to Market as fast as possible.[3]

If Christmas was a low-key holiday for the Madisons, why would it affect the shipping of flour? William’s letter actually gives us a hint that the Madisons allowed the wagoners and other enslaved laborers a few days’ respite from work at Christmastime. (This was a fairly common practice; for examples at other southern plantations, see “The Slave Experience of the Holidays.”)

Company for Christmas

One Christmas tradition the Madisons joyfully embraced was hospitality. Having company at Christmas was one of the real pleasures of the season. At Christmas 1773, just two years after graduating from Princeton, James Madison was delighted to have a visit from a former schoolmate, and wrote to a mutual friend:

George Luckey was with me at Christmas and we talked so much about old Affairs & Old Friends that I have a most insatiable desire to see you all.[4]

Dolley’s seventeen-year-old son John Payne Todd, a boarding student at St. Mary’s Seminary in Baltimore, came home to the Madison White House for Christmas 1809. St. Mary’s rector William duBourg wrote James Madison on December 15 of “Master Todd having communicated to me Mrs. Madison’s request that He should visit her at Christmas.” DuBourg permitted his student to leave school ten days before the holiday, “in order to give him sufficient time to enjoy himself in his family and be returned for the 27th.”[5]

The Madisons had an exuberant gathering at the White House on Christmas Eve 1815, according to a diary entry written by Mary Boardman Crowninshield, wife of the Secretary of the Navy:

Last eve we passed at the President’s, — took the girls with us. Found several gentlemen there and a young lady from Kentucky who is come to make a visit there. [Mrs. Madison] had the parrot brought in for the girls, and he ran after Mary to catch her feet. She screamed and jumped into a chair and pulled hold of Mrs. Madison. We had quite a frolic there, returning soon after eight.[6]

Leave it to Polly the parrot to add a thrill of terror to the festivities! While Christmas Eve was a frolic, Christmas Day was perhaps more dignified, as Dolley invited the Crowninshields to attend church services with her.

Christmas 1829 proved to be another frolicking holiday season for the Madisons, who stayed with Dolley’s cousin in Richmond while elder statesman James attended the Virginia State Constitutional Convention. Dolley wrote to her sister that she had attended a Christmas Eve party where almost all the “ton” (fashionable class) of Richmond attended, along with a dozen masqueraders portraying Rob Roy and other characters. Dolley, attending without James, “staid only til 10 oClock.” The Madisons “dined at Major Gibbon’s on Xmass day,” and attended another “large party” on Christmas night.[7] (And yes, James and Dolley did sometimes use the abbreviation “Xmas,” “X” being generally understood as the Greek letter “chi,” standing for “Christ.”)

A Quiet Home Christmas

Christmas was quieter when the Madisons were at Montpelier than when they were in Washington or Richmond, but Dolley’s letters still mention holiday gatherings. On December 11, 1834, Dolley wrote that her niece “Anna & her sisters have gone to a dancing party at Newman’s—they are to keep the Christmas from this time to New Years day—I shall be quiet at home all the time—I hope.”[8]

The Christmas season of 1835 was likely another quiet one, with John Payne Todd sick, and James Madison in generally declining health. Dolley wrote a letter to her nieces on January 2, 1836, “My dear Payne is not yet well, but I trust he will soon come out of his room— he had several friends to amuse him in it all this day.” Dolley’s letter also included effusive, if belated, holiday greetings for her nieces:

I embrace you both, beloved daughters, with a thousand wishes for your happiness and prosperity on every and many Christmas days to come![9]

In 1842, Dolley (now a widow) spent what would be her last Christmas at Montpelier, writing to a friend in Washington that “Christmas arrived, and with it a lively train of visitors and a brilliant snow.” Dolley added that she wished her friend could be at Montpelier, “to enjoy your holiday and the contrast between our mountains and your agreeable City.” [10]

Dolley moved to the “agreeable City” of Washington in late 1843 and spent her remaining years there. On December 27, 1844, Dolley presented her niece Mary Cutts with a blank book. Gift-giving was not as universal or expected then as it might be today, so the journal was probably a true surprise for Mary. Included with the gift was this note from Dolley:

As Christmas has passed away, and the New-Year is entering upon our days, it finds me stealing in between with my wishes, and a blank book for you—upon whose pages, I trust your good—and happiness may long be registered.[11]

Although the Madisons wrote their greetings for the world in which they lived, many of their holiday wishes have a timeless quality that still resonates with our celebrations today. Whether you read this post as the holiday season opens, or as “the New-Year is entering upon our days,” the Montpelier Research Department wishes you time to “enjoy [your]self in [your] family,” with present-day “friends to amuse” you, time to recollect “old Affairs & Old Friends,” a “brilliant snow” if you want it, and no worries if the “holladays” keep you from getting the flour to market quickly.

Whether you have “quite a frolic” or choose to “be quiet at home all the time,” we echo James’s “compliments which belong to the Season” and Dolley’s “thousand wishes for your happiness and prosperity on every and many Christmas days to come!”

Montpelier's Christmas Open House is December 1

Explore more traditions at this free event!

[1] James Madison to Edmund Pendleton, January 2, 1791, James Madison Papers, Library of Congress, Washington, DC, MRD-S 21813.

[2] James Madison, Instructions to Mordecai Collins, Lewis Collins, and Sawney, November 8, 1790, James Madison Papers, Library of Congress, Washington, DC, MRD-S 21794.

[3] William Madison to James Madison, December 25, 1810, James Madison Collection, MS C0207, Princeton University Library, Princeton, New Jersey, MRD-S 23725.

[4] James Madison to William Bradford, January 24, 1774, Historical Society of Pennsylvania, Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, MRD-S 26314.

[5] William DuBourg to James Madison, December 15, 1809, United States National Archives and Records Administration, Washington, DC, MRD-S 29019.

[6] Mary Boardman Crowninshield to Mary Hodges Boardman, December 24-25, 1815, MRD-S 40356.

[7] 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, MRD-S 28564.

[8] 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, MRD-S 28493.

[9] Dolley Payne Todd Madison to Mary Estelle Elizabeth Cutts and Dolley Payne Madison Cutts, January 2, 1836, Cutts Family Collection of Papers of James and Dolley Madison, Library of Congress, Washington, DC, MRD-S 27352.

[10] Dolley Payne Todd Madison to Cornelia Roosevelt, January 1, 1843, folder Dolley Payne Madison, Miscellaneous Manuscripts Collection, MS 18963 or 24502, Library of Congress, Washington, DC, MRD-S 28251.

[11] Dolley Payne Todd Madison to Mary Estelle Elizabeth Cutts, December 27, 1844, Papers of Dolley Madison, Library of Congress, Washington, DC, MRD-S 31055.

Written By

Hilarie M. Hicks, MA
Senior Research Historian

Hilarie came to Montpelier in 2010 and joined the Research Department in 2011, where she provides documentary research in support of the Montpelier Foundation’s many activities. A graduate of the College of William and Mary (B.A) and the Cooperstown Graduate Program in Museum Studies (M.A.), Hilarie has a broad background of experience in research, interpretation, and administration of historic sites. She enjoys following a good paper trail and locating the perfect Madison quote for any occasion (Christmas especially).

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