Dear Ace: I noticed that UVA and Monticello are commemorating Jefferson’s birthday on Friday, and I got to wondering: How would Thomas Jefferson have celebrated?—Celia Brating
Celia: Images of T.J. in a pointy hat, hopped up on Sprite and Doritos, tearing open presents with abandon and harassing a party clown are certainly tempting to conjure, but Ace regrets to report that they’re probably not historically accurate. But how would Jefferson have celebrated his birthday?
The first confusing tidbit to note is that T.J.’s b-day (check out that rhyme) wasn’t always on April 13. When he was born, the date was recorded as April 2, 1743, an inconsistency that results from the fact that England and her colonies didn’t convert from the Julian to the Gregorian calendar until more than 150 years after the rest of Europe. When li’l Tommy was 9 years old, England finally gave in, adopting the Gregorian calendar in September 1752 and forever losing a week and a half in the process. So now we know when Jefferson would’ve celebrated. To find out how he would have celebrated, Ace talked with Anna Berkes, research librarian at Monticello.
Turns out, there isn’t a single record indicating how Jefferson spent his birthdays. What we do know is that he very much wished that his birthday not be the grand public spectacle that Washington’s had become (think the Fourth of July, but with at least 75 percent more muskets being fired into the air). In an 1803 letter to statesmen Levi Lincoln, Jefferson directed that his birthday not even be publicly known, specifically so that it wouldn’t become some grand Washingtonian holiday.
We can gather, though, how Jefferson’s family might have privately celebrated the day. Jefferson is known to have loved music and would’ve probably had a little hoedown at his birthday parties: According to the Monticello slave Isaac Jefferson, T.J. was almost constantly singing, and his devotion to playing the violin is well documented. He likely would’ve also had a fine meal, perhaps even with a birthday cake (commemorating birthdays with cake and candles was a tradition spreading through Europe from Germany around the time of Jefferson’s diplomatic visits to the continent). And of course, no Jeffersonian celebration would be complete without a boatload of wine. Music, food and alcohol: Mr. Jefferson, we’re not so different, you and I.