The Carter family at Oatlands made gingerbread every year from their own family recipe. Try this gingerbread recipe for yourself!
A Victorian Christmas at Oatlands
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The Christmas celebration of 1877 at Oatlands was a homemade affair, from the plum pudding cooked in the Oatlands kitchen to the handmade gifts and decorations. But Christmas was no less magical for the Carter children than for youngsters of any other era. Elizabeth (Grace) Carter Beach’s memories of that year, collected by her daughter Grayson Carter Barber, are stored in the Oatlands archive. The short essay gives us an idea today of what Christmas was like for the generation of children who grew up in the old mansion in the years following the Civil War.
As winter approached, Grace remembered, the children began spending “many happy hours” planning their Christmas lists. They looked forward to making gifts for family and friends from simple materials, some purchased in the local store but most from nature and their mother’s “Rag Bag” of leftover sewing materials. The children made sachets, pomander balls, needle cases, whistles, pen wipers fashioned from turkey wishbones, and “little dolls with hickory nuts for their faces.”
Grace remembered decorating the house with branches of magnolia from the garden,along with ivy, potted plants, and fruit from the greenhouse. The Christmas tree, mistletoe, and holly were cut last, and “it was the privilege of old Basil and old Alfred,”two formerly enslaved men who continued to work for the Carters, “to go to the Mountain, snow or no snow, and bring these in just a few days before Christmas.” As the holiday neared and excitement built toward a climax, the walls and portraits were decked with holly and ivy, and mistletoe “was hung from the chandeliers and over every doorway.”
At last the Christmas tree was placed at the back of the entrance hall, or salon.Trimming it was the highlight of Christmas Eve. The children had made colored paper chains, paper flowers, strings of small apples on red or silver thread, and many strings of popcorn, because they “thought this made the tree look snowy.”Many households attached candles to Christmas tree branches and lit them on Christmas Day. But Grace’s mother was afraid of fire, so there were no candles on the Carter tree.
Food was as important to the holiday then as it is now. Good things to eat had been prepared since the autumn in anticipation of the Christmas feast. Grace recalled thatafter Thanksgiving “the sausage was made and the hams were hanging in the Meat House. The persimmons were put in stone crocks with cinnamon and brown sugar,” and the plum pudding and fruit cakes were made.
When Christmas Eve came, the Carters followed the English custom of hanging stockings at the foot of each child’s bed. On Christmas morning the children awoke to find the stockings full of caramels, peanuts, and chestnuts, plus an orange and a small gift.A big breakfast on Christmas was followed by the delight of opening gifts in the salon, and then the main meal at midday. As Grace remembered,
Turkey and all the trimmings in front of Father, four vegetables in front of Mother. The ham and a tureen of creamed oysters on the sideboard and Alfred, Milly and Liza waited on the table and saw that everything was as it should be. Next came Plum pudding, two kinds of fruit cake, and also sponge cake… After the table was cleared the tall glasses of wine jelly (made from the pig’s feet) was brought in. This was served with pitchers of that rich yellow cream.
The house servants, such as Alfred, Milly,and Liza who had served at table,had their own stockings hung in the hall. In the evening the other workers came to see the tree and receive their gifts of fruit, nuts, candy, and small amounts of money.After such an exciting day, the children were exhausted. Rather than a meal before bedtime, they had treats similar to yogurt called bonny clabber and junket. The children called it slip, “because it just slipped down.” After evening prayers in the parlor and a last “little sliver of Turkey or Virginia Ham,” the adults also went wearily to bed. And so, remembered Grace, “ended another Christmas Day at Oatlands.”
Celebrating an African American Wedding
One of the more unusual and important entries in the diary of Mrs. Elizabeth Carter was penned on December 24, 1862. On that date she wrote, “Sophy and Jake married in the dining room by Mr. K.”
Mrs. Carter wrote very simple and concise diary entries. The notes served mainly as a farm journal, recording weather conditions, dates of planting and harvest, and the coming and going of visitors to Oatlands and Mrs. Carter’s other property, Bellefield. As in most diaries, the entries can seem cryptic unless you know the writer’s family and friends. But in this case, to understand this brief reference you would need to know her enslaved workers as well. Sophy (or Sophia) was an enslaved woman owned by Mrs. Carter, and Jake (Jacob Howard) was owned by Mrs. Carter’s sister and brother-in-law, Mary and William Stephenson. The marriage ceremony was performed at Bellefield by the Rev. O.A. Kinsolving, minister at Emmanuel Episcopal Church in Middleburg, Virginia. Although White enslavers sometimes attended plantation weddings of the enslaved, celebrating the wedding inside the master’s or mistress’ home was somewhat unusual.
At the time of the wedding, marriages between enslaved individuals had no legal standing. Before 1866, Virginia law did not recognize slave marriages because enslaved people were considered property and not persons in the eyes of the law. However, the unions were recognized by the enslaved community and, in this case, by the plantation owner. Sanctioning the marriages of the enslaved often benefited the enslaver, because marriages tended to keep the workers emotionally tied to the plantation and could also produce additional “property” in the form of children of the enslaved.
The holiday season was a convenient time for the enslaved to marry. The harvest was in, the field workers’ tasks were less pressing, and it was generally a more relaxed time on a plantation. The enslaved often received gifts, money, extra food, and their annual allotment of clothing at Christmas. They also enjoyed rare time off, usually from 3 to 7 days, and were allowed to travel more freely between plantations to visit family and friends. This relaxation of rules made it easier for enslaved families to celebrate social occasions such as weddings.
The story of Sophia and Jacob continues in Mrs. Carter’s diary, with more than 150 mentions between 1862 and 1873. A few months after the wedding, Jacob went to work for Elizabeth, probably rented to her by Mr. and Mrs. Stephenson, giving him and Sophia the opportunity to live together as husband and wife. In October 1863 Sophia had her first child, a daughter.
Following the Civil War, in January 1866, Jacob was formally employed by Mrs. Carter for wages of $125 annually, plus clothing for himself and his wife. Eventually, Sophia and Jacob Howard purchased land near Bellefield, where they established the community of Howardsville. One of their descendants, Kevin Dulany Grigsby, is the author of two books on African American history in Loudoun County, Howardsville: The Journey of an African-American Community in Loudoun County, Virginia and From Loudoun to Glory: The Role of African-Americans from Loudoun County in the Civil War.