Christmas at Arlington House

(This article is courtesy of the National Park Service and is an excerpt from their longer article. The entire article can be read at

For the Lees, “home for the holidays” meant Arlington at Christmas. Robert E. Lee felt this was a time when families should be together and, whenever possible, he and his family returned to Arlington to share the season with his wife, Mary Anna Custis Lee, and her parents at their Arlington estate.

Lee’s occupation as an Army Engineer favored winter vacations, when the work was shut down by weather. Frequently, hardships of travel and health had to be overcome to reach Arlington at Christmas. Despite these challenges, Robert was away from Mary at Christmas only during the war in Mexico from 1846-1849 and in 1860 when he was stationed in Texas. Starting in 1831, the first year of the Lees’ marriage, Robert was at Arlington 20 out of a possible 30 Christmases while the family lived there–a phenomenal record for a soldier on active duty for all those years.

Christmas at Arlington began on December 17, when Mary’s father, George Washington Parke Custis, had the greens brought in. The pine, ivy, holly and myrtle filled Arlington and were kept fresh through the twelve days of Christmas. Mistletoe was suspended from lanterns and arches. Any unsuspecting loiterer, found beneath, was required to forfeit a kiss. On Christmas Eve, Mr. Custis supervised the placement of the yule log. A piece of the log from the previous Christmas was used to ignite the highly decorated log of the new season. This old Norse and Anglo-Saxon custom was an important part of the Arlington Christmas celebration.

Christmas day itself began with ‘Christmas gifting’ of family members, guests and servants followed by morning prayer and breakfast. Then, weather permitting, the family attended services at Christ Episcopal Church in Alexandria where Robert and Mary had worshiped since childhood. After exchanging season’s greetings with town friends and family the carriage would return to Arlington in time for the feast. The celebration continued until Robert had to return to duty in January.

As the Lee family grew with the births of seven children between 1832 and 1846, Christmas at Arlington became very child oriented. Books, dolls, boots, skates, and a tool chest were among the gifts exchanged on this day.

Christmas 1846 found Robert E. Lee away from his family and Arlington at Christmas for the first time in 15 years.  Robert wrote to ‘My Dearest Mary’ on Christmas Day and described his Christmas dinner. The table was decorated with pine and oranges and bottles of wine. The feast featured roasted turkey and chicken and, among other good things, eggnog.  He continued to remember with Mary the Christmases they had shared.

“We have had many happy Christmas’ together, and this is the first time that we have been entirely separated at this holy time since our marriage, and though I have been absent on two or three other occasions on the day itself, yet have not been far distant and always arrived during the holy days. We have therefore nothing to complain of and I hope it has not interfered with your happiness, surrounded as you are by father, Mother, children and dear friends. I therefore trust you are well and happy and that this is the last time I shall be absent from you during my life. May God preserve and bless you till then and forever after is my constant prayer.”

This family, like many others, would not be reunited until the end of the war with Mexico. Their next Christmas together would be celebrated between assignments for Lee, in 1848, at Arlington.

Christmas 1849 found the Lees living in Baltimore where Robert was working on the construction of Fort Carroll. They returned to Arlington for every Christmas until 1852. The celebrations were grand, as Lee described in a letter to his eldest son, Custis, who was absent in 1851.

“We came on Wednesday morning. It was a bitter cold day, and we were kept waiting an hour in the depot at Baltimore for the cars, which were detained by the snow and ice on the rails. … The snow impeded the carriage as well as us, and we reached here shortly after it. The children were delighted at getting back, and passed the evening in devising pleasure for the morrow. They were in upon us before day on Christmas morning, to overhaul their stockings. … 

[We] went into church, and [son] Rooney… skated back along the canal (Rooney having taken his skates along for the purpose).

I need not describe to you our amusements, you have witnessed them so often; nor the turkey, cold ham, plum pudding, mince-pies, etc. at dinner. I hope you will enjoy them again, or some equally as good…”

From 1852-1854, Colonel Lee’s position as Superintendent of the Military Academy at West Point required the elder Lees’ presence during the holidays, so they were away from Arlington for Christmas. In 1856, Lee was absent from the Arlington Christmas celebrations once again after he was transferred to Texas with the Second United States Cavalry. However, his thoughts were with his wife and children, as he wrote to them from afar:

“The time is approaching when I trust many of you will be assembled around the family hearth at dear Arlington, to celebrate another Christmas. Though absent, my heart will be in the midst of you, and I shall enjoy in imagination and memory, all that is going on.”

Lee was back at Arlington for Christmas in 1857, on leave from the army to manage the affairs of the Arlington plantation, in the wake of his father-in-law’s death. Duties connected with the estate would keep him at Arlington through Christmas the following year.

In the spring of 1860, Lee returned to Texas and stayed there through the following winter. As Christmas, 1860 approached, his wife’s health and the unsettled state of national affairs precluded any thought of her going West. With the election of Abraham Lincoln in November, South Carolina seceded. Concern for the future of the Union was reflected in Colonel Lee’s Christmas greeting:

“Although you anticipated a quiet Christmas, I hope it was a happy one to you all, and that you were filled with gratitude for the many blessings that surrounded you. Although distant, my heart and thoughts were ever present with you and my prayers were offered for Heavens choicest benefits for you all…. Here we are far removed and get the essence of all disunion movements from the New Orleans papers…. I am particularly anxious that ‘Virginia should keep right, and inauguration of the Constitution, so I would wish that she might be able to maintain it and save the union.’”

Unfortunately this was not to be and, as it turned out, Christmas of 1860 would be the Lee family’s last at Arlington. As Virginia was on the verge of secession in April 1861, Robert E. Lee resigned from the U.S. Army and the family left Arlington for good shortly before the estate was occupied by U.S. Army troops in May 1861.

Text by Agnes Mullins, former Curator, Arlington House, The Robert E. Lee Memorial