Built by English architect George Hadfield for George Washington Parke Custis (step-grandson and adopted son of George Washington), Arlington House was home to Robert E. Lee from 1831 to 1861, and the annual holiday season was a time of much celebration for the Lee and Custis families. The annual return to Arlington House was an occasion near and dear to all family members. Indeed, beginning in 1831, Robert E. Lee returned to Arlington on 20 out of 30 Christmases, all while he was an active duty soldier.
The house was decorated with ivy, pine, holly, and myrtle. Mistletoe was hung from lanterns and arches, and a great yule log was brought to the fireplace on Christmas Eve and lit from a piece of the log from the previous Christmas. Gifts, including books, skates, dolls, and many others were exchanged by family members, followed by morning prayer and breakfast. A holiday feast of turkey, ham, plum pudding and mince pie was served later in the day.
The Christmas of 1860 would be the final one at Arlington for the Lee family, as Virginia seceded from the Union in April of 1861, and the estate was occupied by U.S. Army troops in May of that same year.
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