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Washington's Birthday — Birthnight Banquet & Ball

On Feb. 17, join the 18th and 21st century citizens of Alexandria for the 275th anniversary of George Washington’s birth at the annual George Washington Birthnight Banquet and Ball. Made famous by notable hosteler John Gadsby, the Birthnight Ball is a unique Alexandria tradition that continues today.

The annual George Washington Birthnight Banquet and Ball is sponsored by the George Washington Birthday Celebration Committee and is a highlight of the month’s many Washington-related activities. This year’s Birthnight Ball will feature an opening reception with 25 costumed interpreters, portraying many of the prominent (and some infamous) citizens that would have frequented our busy seaport in the 18th century. Mix and mingle with town merchants and businessmen as well as General and Mrs. George Washington. The evening will commence with an opening minuet, Washington’s favorite dance. Then you will have the opportunity to try 18th century English Country Dance as taught by experienced Dance Master, Corky Palmer.

After a few dances, attendees will dine at an elegant banquet as guests of General and Mrs. Washington. This year’s menu was specifically designed by Anita Ellis of Avalon Catering. “I am excited about creating a truly unique dining experience to honor and celebrate the father of our country. I look forward to combining foods that were enjoyed by our forefathers in a 21st century style. ”

Costumed interpreters, including host John Gadsby, will discuss events of the day, lead you in 18th century toasts, and teach you the dining and social customs of the period.

Steve Diatz, resident of Alexandria, has attended 24 consecutive Birthnight Balls. “The Birthnight Ball is the most historic venue in the most historic town in America, celebrating one of the greatest Americans – I wouldn’t miss it!”

The Ball will formally open after the Banquet, with live musicians and exhibition dancing by members of the Living History Foundation. Dances such as Well Hall, Fandango and Barham Down are beautiful to watch as 18th century ladies and gentlemen show off their finest moves. The Ball will also feature an exquisite dessert collation of cakes, cookies, and tarts. Wines, Port and Madeira will be available for purchase.

THE TRADITION of the Birthnight Ball originated in England to commemorate and celebrate the birthday of the monarch each year. In the American colonies, similar balls or dancing assemblies were held annually. Following the Patriot victory in the Revolution, Americans continued this tradition. However, absent of a monarch, Americans turned to the next closet figure, President George Washington.

The first public celebration of Washington’s birthday was at Valley Forge during the winter of 1778 on February 22. The first documented Alexandria event was in 1789. It was John Gadsby, however, who made the tradition of the Birthnight Ball in Alexandria famous. Gadsby hosted the celebration February 10, 1797, placing an ad in The Times and Alexandria Advertiser inviting all “Ladies of Alexandria and its vicinity.” Washington was unfortunately not in attendance as he was in Philadelphia still serving as President. In 1798 and 1799, General and Mrs. Washington did attend the Birthnight Ball.

Washington noted the following in his diary:

Went up to Alexandria to the celebration of my birth day. Many Manoeuvres were performed by the Uniform Corps and an elegant Ball & Supper at Night.

A dancing assembly was held at Gadsby’s Tavern in November of 1799, and an invitation was sent to the Washingtons at Mount Vernon. Washington’s response dated November 13, 1799 read in part:

Gentlemen, — Mrs. Washington and myself have been honored with your polite invitation to the Assemblies of Alexandria this winter, and thank you for this mark of your attention. But, alas! Our dancing days are no more….

Washington died just days later at Mount Vernon from complications resulting from quinsy sore throat.

The Birthnight Ball did not end with the life of Washington. The Alexandria Gazette posted the following ad on February 18, 1803:

The Gentlemen of Alexandria and its vicinity are respectfully informed, that an Assembly will be given at Gadsby’s Hotel, on the 22d instant, in commemoration of the Nativity of Washington.

Based upon newspaper accounts, Gadsby’s Hotel (later known as the City Hotel), held the Birthnight Ball almost every year until the outbreak of the Civil War.

In 1932, American Legion Post #24, who purchased the historic Gadsby’s Tavern buildings and saved them from demolition, celebrated the 200th anniversary of Washington’s birth by re-creating the 1799 Birthnight Ball. The 1932 Birthnight Ball was the social event of the year, and was broadcast live on NBC radio.

Although sporadically held for the next forty-four years, in 1976 the annual tradition of the Birthnight Ball resumed and continues each year at what is now Gadsby’s Tavern Museum. Only at Gadsby’s Tavern Museum’s Birthnight Ball can you take part in an event that is so steeped in history and tradition.

For tickets to this year’s Birthnight Banquet and Ball, please contact Gadsby’s Tavern Museum at 703-838-4242, 134 North Royal Street, Alexandria, VA 22314. Or, purchase tickets online at www.gadsbystavern.org. Dance Classes for the ball will be held on February 1, 8 and 15 in preparation for the ball.