When looking out of certain windows or enjoying lunch on the rooftop patio at WorldStrides, employees can see Thomas Jefferson’s Monticello, sitting high atop its mountain. Last month, I took advantage of our proximity. Every December, Monticello opens its doors after hours for a look at how the Jeffersons celebrated the holidays. I’ve visited Monticello several times, but never at night, and knew I was in for special treat.
Arriving at the house, I took a moment to just look at it from the end of the sidewalk, and think of all the history that happened on that very mountain. The path was lit by lanterns, welcoming our small group to the home. We stepped into the Hall—no cameras allowed!—which served as a reception area for visitors, and a museum of American natural history, western civilization, and the American Indians. This is where Jefferson’s infamous Great Clock resides, along with a number of paintings, a map of Virginia as surveyed by his father, and a set of antlers from the Lewis & Clark Expedition.
While this was a holiday tour, there weren’t Christmas trees or boughs of holly decking the halls. Christmas as its celebrated today didn’t arrive in America until the mid-19th century. For Jefferson, Christmas was a time for family and friends, or, as he wrote, “the day of greatest mirth and jollity.” Mince pies and music were custom, as were meals of fresh game. Learn more about how the Jeffersons celebrated the holidays here.
Our guide took us through the home while a string trio played, feeding us great information on the home and Jefferson. Although I’ve been to Monticello several times, I had never been upstairs. The holiday tour included not only the second floor rooms, but also the Dome Room. As our group climbed the very narrow wooden stairs to the second floor, I couldn’t help but think about how incredible it was that we were there, walking the same floors and climbing the same stairs as Thomas Jefferson.
Upstairs, we saw the bedroom belonging to Jefferson’s granddaughter, which happened to be directly above her grandfather’s office. His granddaughter Ellen wrote that she could hear “Grand-Papa” humming Scottish folk songs while he worked. The nursery is located on the second floor as well, along with other bedrooms. At one point, Jefferson had more than 20 family members living in his home!
The most spectacular room of the house, however, is located on the third room. The Dome Room is painted a bright Mars Yellow and the circular windows and skylight offer stunning views of Charlottesville, even at night. The exact purpose of the room is unknown. The only known long term occupants of the room are Jefferson’s grandson, Thomas Jefferson Randolph, and his wife. At the time of Jefferson’s death, the room was used for storage. It also includes a hidden space at the back of the room, known as the “cuddy,” that was used by his granddaughters as a secret place to read and write.
As a literature lover, my favorite room of the house was Jefferson’s library, part of his suite of rooms which also includes his office and bedchamber. At one point, Jefferson’s book collection exceeded 6,000, and was sold to Congress in 1815 after the British entered Washington, D.C., and burned the Capitol building and the library inside of it during the War of 1812. Jefferson’s collection became the foundation for today’s Library of Congress. My fingers itched to reach out and take one of the books from the shelf. As Jefferson said, “I cannot live without books.”
While the nighttime tour didn’t include the sweeping grounds of Monticello, the opportunity to tour all three levels of the home at nighttime was a special experience. Like every trip to Monticello, I learned even more about the home, Jefferson, and our country’s history.