Posts Tagged ‘Martha Washington’

Today we continue our look at Twelfth Night traditions from Johnna McEntee’s article through the “Into the History” series at Hidden Dirk Mercantile.

Into the History
by Johnna McEntee

Twelfth Night Traditions – Part III

(continued from Part II) Also included in the 12 days of partying was the welcoming of the New Year. New Year’s Eve and New Year’s day celebrations were observed, especially with those of Scottish or Scots-Irish decent (where the dawning of a new year was celebrated with great occasion), but they were not as widespread as the New Year celebrations of today.

But, the typical end of the 18th century holidays happened on Twelfth Night, or January 6. This night was considered the perfect time for parties, lavish balls and even weddings.

Twelfth night parties evolved from the Roman Saturnalia festival, the feast that marked the Winter Solstice, pagan fertility rites, feasting, family  and community gatherings, and was tacked on around the 4th century to Europe’s emerging Christian culture. In the 18th century, Twelfth Night was seen as the final hurrah of the holiday season, and thus the time to get in the final acts of merry-making, feasting drinking and other debauchery before life returned to the normalcy of everyday-winter.

These festivities involved copious amounts of food, special desserts and sweets, and, of course, alcohol. Wassail has been associated with Twelfth Night since the 1400s, and was very popular in the 18th century, as were brandies, wines and whiskies.

As a key feasting holiday, Twelfth Night parties had no shortage of delicious vittles. And, in true 18th century form, the presentation of the food itself could be viewed as a form of entertainment. Elaborately decorated roasts of birds and other meat, heaps of winter vegetables, and extravagant dessert towers and arrangements made the serving table look like artwork. They were treated as such too, being “ooohed” and “aaaahhed” over until, inevitably, they were devoured by appreciative guests.

The biggest treat of the night, however, was the Twelfth Night cake. This lavish and ornately decorated dessert was often the culmination of the evening’s meal – and the pride of the hostess. Martha Washington’s own Twelfth Night Cake recipe included four pounds of sugar, 40 eggs, and five pounds of dried fruits. 

 Photo Caption: Colonial Williamsburg actors interpret what the celebration of the Twelfth Night cake may have been like in the 18th century.

But it wasn’t just the sugar and fruits that made this cake the most anticipated part of the evening.  Baked into the cake was a small ornament – a coin or a bean or a figure of the Baby Jesus, sometimes even slips of paper. As the cake was cut and eaten by the guests, the person who’s piece held the treasure was crowned king or queen of Twelfth Night. Does this concept sound familiar to you? Twelfth Night-style cakes are often used as part of another modern Mardi Gras favorite, the “King Cake,” complete with a baby figurine baked inside.

Tomorrow, in our last part of this series, we will look at how the upper-class celebrated and what has become of the Twelfth Night traditions.


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General George Washington and Martha Dandridge Custis were married January 6, 1759 at Martha’s estate in New Kent, Virginia.   In celebration of their anniversary, we thought we’d take a quick look at what was worn by the happy couple for this Museum Monday focus.

Although the most well-known painting of the Washington’s wedding is the lithograph below by Lemecier available from the Prints and Photographs Division of the Library of Congress, it wasn’t painted until 1853 – well after the actual wedding date occurred, which was quite common during that time period.  This date difference most likely is the reason Martha Washington’s wedding gown  in the painting (as imagined by the artist almost 100 years after the event) is quite different from the replication gown housed at Mount Vernon.

Descriptions of the Washingtons’ wedding attire are thus:

“Martha was married in a yellow brocade dress that was trimmed with lace at the neck and sleeves. Some historians describe her wedding dress as a gold damask dress.

Underneath her gown she wore a white silk petticoat with silver threads. Her shoes were purple satin and trimmed in silver metallic lace and sequins. She wore pearls in her hair. George wore ‘a blue suit with a white satin waistcoast and blue buckles on his shoes.’ “
Source: Ruth Ashby, George & Martha Washington, page 17.
Mt. Vernon has the following gown on display as Martha Washington’s wedding attire:
Although the gown currently featured at Mt. Vernon is a replication, Mrs. Washington’s original shoes are actually still at Mt. Vernon.  The last time they were brought out for public display was a brief 42 days in 2009 and, due to their fragile condition, there is no expectation for them to be displayed again for quite some time.  However, shoe-aholics can still get a glimpse of the very stylish shoe Martha specially ordered for her wedding, as they have been painstakingly replicated as seen below.  These are the shoes currently shown with the replicated dress at Mt. Vernon.

Some may find it odd that the bride chose such “unusual” colors for her wedding ensemble.  The tradition of white bridal gowns actually didn’t start until 1840 when the marriage of Queen Victoria to Prince Albert made it the prefered color of brides who opted to follow in the footsteps of the Queen’s choice of gown color. Although brides may have worn white to their weddings prior to the mid 19th century, it wasn’t expected, nor the norm.  After 1840 however, the fashion trend stuck.

The purple and gold color combination she chose for her special day was worn often by Martha, as seen in this reconstruction portrait of what historians and anthropologists best believed she looked like in her 20s, when George and she first met.

Photo: The Washington Post, Courtesy of Michael Deas

Although not much in imagery through paintings or replications exist regarding Mr. Washington’s wedding suit, we can imagine it could be something similar to this:
George and Martha certainly had a savvy sense of style for their wedding.  But more importantly, they had a vast love for each other that held strong through 40 years, till President George Washington’s death in 1799.  Hidden Dirk Mercantile wishes a happy anniversary to the “First Couple” of our nation!

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