Perhaps no season offered a better occasion for a wedding in colonial Virginia than winter.
Though Christmas Day was spent in worship at church or in reflection at home, more raucous celebrations occurred throughout the four weeks of Advent all the way to the Epiphany on Jan. 6. The end of harvest season in Virginia lightened the farming obligations, creating more time for folks to gather, feast and dance with family and friends.
“Nothing is now to be heard of in conversation, but the Balls, the Fox-hunts, the fine entertainments, and the good fellowship, which are to be exhibited at the approaching Christmas,” Philip Vickers Fithian, a Virginia tutor, wrote in his diary in December 1773.
Weddings became a natural extension of this festive season. Even some famous couplings occurred during winter: Col. George Washington and Martha Dandridge Custis married on the Epiphany in 1759, and Thomas Jefferson and Martha Wayles Skelton held their nuptials on New Year’s Day in 1772, reportedly departing the ceremony in a snowstorm en route to Monticello.
Regardless of the time of year, weddings among the Virginia gentry had many of the same elements as an elegant party with lavish spreads of food, drinking and dancing. Those of middling status likely celebrated similarly but with a scaled-down version to fit their time and budget. Little is known of the wedding customs for the free and enslaved blacks beyond the tradition of “jumping the broom” as part of the ceremony, which likely included Christian elements. Their marriages, however, were not legally recognized.
The parlor room of the bride’s home, rather than a church, was often the place where couples exchanged vows. The Jeffersons, for example, married at the Forest, the Wayles estate just outside of Williamsburg. It is believed the Washingtons married at the White House, the New Kent plantation Martha inherited after her first husband’s death.
Though colonial Virginians quite regularly flouted the Church of England’s decree that weddings be held in a church, the couple and their families worked closely with an Anglican minister leading up to the ceremony and were, of course, ultimately married by him.
The banns, or declaration of the intention to marry, were announced in both the bride’s church and the groom’s church for three weeks unless the couple obtained a marriage license from the county clerk instead. Either way, the minister presided over the ceremony as outlined in the Book of Common Prayer.
After the ceremony, the wedding guests enjoyed a lavish supper. The amount of food depended on the family’s means. Gentry hosts often placed a wedding cake at the center of the table, surrounded by pastries, meats, fruits and other delicacies.
William Wirt, an author, educator and eventual attorney general of the United States under James Monroe, described the sumptuous supper served at an 1806 Williamsburg wedding: The center cake display stood 4 feet high, he said, “more simply elegant than any thing of the kind I remember to have seen”; two “lofty pyramids of jellies, syllabubs, ice-creams, etc.” were arranged at either end of the table; a large cake sat between each pyramid and the center cake; and “a profusion of meats, cheese-cakes, fruits, etc., etc.” filled the table setting.
Ladies and gentlemen alike dressed in their best to attend a wedding. Fashion also played a part in the wedding favors offered to guests. Popular favors included fans and gloves.
No social expectation for a bride to dress in white existed at the time, the tradition not coming into vogue until after Queen Victoria’s wedding in 1840. Martha Washington wore yellow brocade and lace with purple sequined shoes, according to her granddaughters who preserved the shoes and remnants of the dress.
“Maybe they had new clothes made for the wedding, maybe not,” said Neal Hurst, Colonial Williamsburg’s associate curator of costumes and textiles. “What we do know is a wedding gown would become part of the wardrobe. It was not seen as a single-use garment like it is today.”
Eighteenth-century wedding celebrations in Virginia often started days before the ceremony and continued for days after, with family and friends dropping in for tea, supper, games and conversation. Robert Hunter, an Englishman visiting Virginia, described reveling for three days in the extravagant food, elegant dress and persistent dancing at the wedding of Maria Beverley and Richard Randolph at Blandfield in early December 1785.
“We were all extremely happy in each other’s company, the ladies being perfectly free and easy and at the same [time] elegant in their manners,” he wrote. “They would grace any country whatever. The manner in which this affair has been managed does honor to Mr. Beverley.”