People have held celebrations throughout our existence, though naturally the extent and tone of them not only varied but also morphed over time. Today I want to talk about birthdays, Martha Washington’s – well, Martha Dandridge’s – in particular.
Martha was born on June 2, 1731 at Chestnut Grove, a middling plantation on the Pamunkey River in Virginia. In the 18th century, the pregnancy of the mother and the birth of a baby was a time filled with fear and anxiety. Many pregnant women made out a will in case they died during the ordeal of birthing the baby. Complications could take her life even after the baby had been born. Reproduction may be a natural occurrence, but it doesn’t come without difficulties of one kind or another. Think about all of the precautions and preparations made today when a child is on the way. They didn’t have those same medicines and apparatus to use to safely deliver the child.
I’ve read that many parents didn’t name their children until their first birthday, a superstitious failsafe against the child not living to be one year of age. I try to imagine what the parents might have been feeling, thinking, worrying during that 12 months. Today we would celebrate that first birthday with a cake and balloons, perhaps. Maybe invite friends and family to gather and share in the celebration of life lived for one (more) year. Back then, not so much.
Apparently, birthday parties didn’t become a thing for the average folks until well into the 1800s. The Victorians are credited with borrowing a German tradition in the early 1800s to influence the creation of birthday parties. The making of birthday cakes didn’t become widespread until the invention of a freestanding cookstove in the 1840s. Cakes could be baked in a falling (cooling) bread oven but not as easily as after the cookstove was invented.
So did they celebrate Martha’s first birthday? Or any birthday? Her early years are not part of the historical record because she was a young girl/woman and not famous or wealthy. As far as I know, she didn’t keep a diary or journal or commonplace book. It’s possible that the family may have served her favorite dish on her birthday, or even baked a cake or pie for her. I doubt there would have been gifts, definitely not balloons!
What about singing “Happy Birthday”? Didn’t they at least do that? Well, no. “Happy Birthday to You” wasn’t written until the 1890s when two kindergarten teachers (Patty and Mildred Hill, apparently wrote “Good Morning to All” to be sung in class each day. When a student had a birthday, they switched the lyrics to “Happy Birthday to You.”
I believe later in life Martha’s birthday would have been celebrated with a special feast and token or luxury gifts (handkerchiefs, chocolates, etc.). I do know that the king’s birthday as well as the governor’s was celebrated every year, just like Queen Elizabeth’s is celebrated today. And they celebrated George Washington’s birthday annually while he was a general of the Continental Army and beyond. So I could imagine they did some kind of celebration for hers as well.
To make up for not ever having been sung to for her birthday, I have decided to throw Martha a party for her 289th birthday. The party will take place on Sunday, May 31, 3-4 pm CDT, a few days before the actual date of her birth. I’m inviting all of you to join in virtually from your own computer or device, too. We’ll each put a single birthday candle in a baked good (cake, cupcake, cookie, brownie, etc.) or other dessert. We’ll sing “Happy Birthday” to Martha Washington and by extension her story, Becoming Lady Washington, which will release on June 2. Then we’ll blow out the candles and I’ll read an excerpt from the book and answer any of your burning questions about her life or my writing and research. I’m throwing the party on a Sunday mid-afternoon because I’m hoping more people will be able to attend as a result of the party not being on a weekday. I’m really hoping most everyone will be back to work by June, though we’ll have to follow the expert guidance. But I hope having the party will be a bit of a distraction and a lot of fun, too!
How will it work? Glad you asked! After you RSVP here, the week of the party I’ll send out a newsletter to only the party guests with the party favors and the Zoom meeting invitation link. The party favors include another excerpt and several 18th-century recipes I’ve remade as well as the recipe for Martha Washington’s Great Cake. I might even throw in a game or puzzle, too! You can dress up in period costume if you’d like, or just wear a party hat for the occasion. You might really get into the spirit and decorate a bit for a birthday party, too. I’m going to see what decorations I can scare up here. (If you need help with using Zoom, email me at email@example.com and I’ll help you figure out how to work with it. It’s easy!) If you’re interested in attending the party, be sure to RSVP or you won’t receive the party invite! (Yes, it will sign you up for a newsletter, but only one time so I can send you the information. Then that group of subscribers will be deleted. Promise!)
I don’t know about you, but I’m looking forward to having a few friends “over” and celebrating the release of Becoming Lady Washington! Her story has been 5 years in the making and will finally be available to readers. Early reviews rate it 4 and 5 stars and are lavishing praise on the story. (Thank you so much, reviewers!)
Thanks for reading! I hope to “see” you at the party!
P.S. If you haven’t already, please consider signing up for my newsletter, which I send out most every month, including news like new covers, new releases, and upcoming appearances where I love to meet my readers, along with recipes and writing progress. Thanks and happy reading!
Visit www.bettybolte.com for more on my books and upcoming events.
Available for preorders now! Releases June 2, 2020…
Martha “Patsy” Custis manages an immense eighteenth-century plantation in the Virginia colony. But as a young widow she’s hard pressed to balance her business and to care for her two young children. They need a father and protector. She needs a husband and business partner…one she can trust, especially now as tensions rise between the motherland and the American colonies. Her experience and education have sustained her thus far but when her life veers in an unexpected direction, she realizes she has so much more to learn.
Colonel George Washington takes an interest in her and she’s surprised to find him so sociable and appealing. They form an instant bond and she is certain he’ll be a likeable and loving husband and father figure for her children. She envisions a quiet life at Mount Vernon, working together to provide for their extended family.
But when trouble in the form of British oppression, taxes, and royal arrogance leads to revolt and revolution, George must choose between duty to country and Martha. Compelled to take matters into her own hands, Martha must decide whether to remain where she belongs or go with her husband…no matter what the dangerous future may hold.