As I have contemplated the essential components of the Washington Holiday experience, a visit to one of the Presidential homes seemed to be a requirement. Proximity favored Mount Vernon over Monticello, so on Saturday, Maggie and I rented a car and got an early start to Mount Vernon.
In spite of the special Christmas decorations, December is not a major tourist season at Mount Vernon, so unlike in the summer, the upper floors of the main house were available for viewing. Our early start also gave us a jump on the numerous troops of cub scouts and brownies who were out for a visit. It seemed to be a rite of passage to get the troop’s picture taken at Washington’s tomb, but we skipped that part.
The last time I was at Mount Vernon was when I was in fourth grade, and although I had the pride of having visited and some vague memories of the estate, it was a pleasure to visit again when I could appreciate more of the details. For example, although the façade of the house appears to be blocks of stone, it is actually made of beveled boards, which was significantly less expensive to build. The grainy stone texture was achieved by throwing sand on the boards during the painting process. The color of the mansion is currently beige, which matched neither my memories nor most of the pictures and propaganda I’ve seen. A guide explained that they had found a board in the attic that was apparently from the original structure. The assumption had been than it was river sand used in the painting process, which would indeed have been white, but the board demonstrated that it was a different kind of Virginia sand, which would have produced the beige color that we now saw.
In the late 1780’s, General Washington was inspired one Christmas that his family needed to see what a camel looked like. Since there were no zoos at the time, he paid a man 15 shillings to bring a camel to the estate. (There were no details about exactly why a man from Virginia was in possession of a camel.) Thus it has become a tradition to have a camel at Mount Vernon during the Christmas season. The representative of the species for the past several years has been Aladdin, a young lad of five years who is extremely friendly, but is very fond of filching hats and scarves of unsuspecting visitors. Aladdin’s handler was a chap in Colonial get-up who spoke with a strong Scottish accent. The handler explained that because camels have no upper teeth, they can’t bite, and he allowed Aladdin to munch on his hand to demonstrate. I found Aladdin’s big brown eyes to be irresistible, so I petted him and allowed him to chew my hand a bit as well. It was not painful, however, it was extremely slimy. I don’t regret the experience, but I was happy to find a restroom to clean up before we went too much further.
The main house at Mount Vernon was decorated according to the style of Washington’s time, so the focus was on special meals and some greenery over the doors and mantles rather than trees and wreaths. The Visitor’s Center, however, featured some extremely creative trees, decorated with musical themes or with dolls (available for purchase at the shop.) One of the most unusual themes was the tree decorated with dinner plates, but it actually did work.
After Mount Vernon, Maggie and I had a bit of time to kill before our later afternoon event. Since we had the rare benefit of a car, I suggested that we try to find the Theodore Roosevelt Memorial, which is on a large island in the middle of the Potomac, and is a bit of a hike on foot. Yes, this is a National Parks Passport stamp, which is why the scavenger hunt was merited. I just finished reading, The Big Burn, which in addition to describing a mammoth 1910 forest fire in the West, also detailed the efforts of T. Roosevelt and Gifford Pinchot to preserve forests and establish the US Forest Service. It thus felt quite appropriate to see Roosevelt’s statue this past weekend.
Some very creative navigation was required on Maggie’s part to get us back to the rental car drop off. Repeatedly intersections that appeared to be reasonable turns on the map in reality were on different vertical levels. I told her that my top priority was that she keep us out of DuPont circle, and she executed magnificently. We stopped briefly back at our apartments to drop off the bulk of our possessions because our final adventure for the day was a holiday tour at the White House, and any sort of bag was strongly discouraged.
I remain extremely impressed with the White House’s facility at handling crowds. The group holding 4:30 tickets seemed to be at least a hundred strong, but once we passed through security, we never felt crowded or hurried. We were, however, disappointed that we had virtuously left our cameras at home, but at the entrance, there was a sign that we were welcome to take photos. We did reasonably well with our cell phones, so we entered in good spirits.
I had left Mount Vernon feeling that my quest for fancy decorations was unsatisfied, but the White House took care of that feeling. Each room had a different color and design theme for the decorations, and each tree was exquisitely executed. On my own tree, I cherish that each ornament has a story or a memory associated with it, which results in an eclectic mix, but I can also appreciate the tastefully ornate display in a public space.
Just to mention a few of the trees that I enjoyed, in the foyer was a tree with a red, white, and blue theme dedicated to all of our troops. In that room were postcards where we could send a message to the troops and even mail the card in the mail box provided for that purpose. I was also enchanted with the tree in the Green Room, whose glass ornaments were each a tiny hand-blown terrarium.
There seems to be a holiday theme in DC of constructing gingerbread houses of famous locations. We had seen the Willard Hotel in gingerbread previously, and the White House was also displayed as a baked confection. The color of the gingerbread was carefully formulated to match the color of the unpainted White House. We were told that when we left via the North Entrance, that there is one window sill that is unpainted, and when we looked, the color of the unpainted building did indeed match the gingerbread White House.
One of my favorite parts of the White House tour was the people. It was a very festive and happy crowd, and guests were constantly offering to take pictures for each other. I’ll take that friendly holiday White House crowd over holiday mall shopping any day!