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A Candlelit Journey to the Past

George Washington Estate Opens for Night Tours

A hearty Christmas pie was on the table. All the pathways were lined with flickering candles. And the large iron kettle hung over the pit fire to warm the cider for guests at the great estate.

The holiday season arrived at the general's home Friday at dusk with the first of three weekend tours that welcome visitors to "Mount Vernon by Candlelight." More than 3,600 took advantage of a step back in time over the Thanksgiving holiday period.

Tours at Mount Vernon Estate begin each evening at 5 and last until 8 p.m. Tours will also be held the weekends of Dec. 6, 7, 8 and 13,14,15.

"We sold out each of the first three nights," said Stephanie Brown, marketing director, Mount Vernon Estate. "But tickets are still available for the next two weekends."

A highlight of the tour is a visit to the third floor of the mansion, where Martha Washington moved after George's death in 1799. "She never entered their bedroom on the second floor after his death," a tour interpreter explained.

The third floor garret chamber contains the trunk she used when visiting the general during the Revolutionary War. Next to her room is one used by the family to keep memorabilia, toys and "other items no longer in regular use." Known as the "Lumber Room," it was the equivalent of the modern attic.

LEAVING THE GRAVEL PATHS marked by hanging candles, visitors begin their tour in the large dining room that was added to the house during the Revolutionary War. It is the only two-story room in the mansion.

This was the room where America's first family entertained and where the table is set with a fruit-and-nut course. According to records, it was one of Washington's favorite parts of the meal.

From there the tour enters the center hall with its view of the family dining room, which is set for the holiday season with the Christmas "pye" and Martha's "Great Cake." This pie combined turkey, goose, partridge and pigeon. The Great Cake called for five pounds of fruit and a substantial amount of wine. Upon completion, it was 14 inches tall and nearly 18 inches across.

As visitors peered into the small dining room, one woman from North Carolina observed, "Now that's real cooking." In addition to the food on the main table, the sideboards held a variety of other dessert possibilities.

Over each of the doorways throughout the first floor is a swath of greens gathered from the grounds of the estate. It is a combination of juniper, evergreen and holly. "The holly has to be replaced every eight days throughout the season because it dries out in the temperature of the house," the guide explained.

IN ADDITION TO their special visit to the third floor, visitors tour the second floor, which provided accommodations for many holiday travelers and guests of the Estate. However, the most fashionable guest room is actually on the first floor, next to the small dining room. "The Washingtons' most honored guests would have been placed in this room," according to the interpreter.

With the activities of farming slowed for the winter, the holidays became a time for visitations, even though travel during the Colonial era was long, uncomfortable and often perilous. With the winters much more harsh than today in this part of the country, coupled with totally unpredictable road conditions, covering a route we now do in hours could take days or even weeks.

As reported in Mount Vernon literature, "In 1790, Thomas Jefferson wrote to Thomas Mann Randolph from New York that his journey from Richmond lasted two weeks." He explained, "I arrived ... after a laborious journey of a fortnight from Richmond as ever I went through, resting only one day in Alexandria and another in Baltimore. ...The roads ... were so bad that we could never go more than three miles an hour, sometimes not more than two, and the night not more than one."

From the house visitors are encouraged to again walk along the candlelit paths, past the various outbuildings, to the pasture, where there are hot cider, ginger cookies and caroling.

Since the activity is a popular event, and the only time during the year the Estate is open exclusively for public evening tours, advanced ticket purchase is advised. There are 1,200 tickets available for each evening. They can be purchased at the Estate's main gate or through Ticketmaster. Admission is $15 for adults and $8 for children 11 and under. Additional information is available by calling 703-780-2000 or visiting the Web at www.mountvernon.org.