Museum News


Holidays in Poe’s Day


Enjoying lots of delicious food, gift giving and getting, sleeping late, and catching up with family and friends is pretty much traditional fare for our 21st century holiday celebrations. We hope you are enjoying your holidays wherever you are, and whatever your traditions.

But what was this time of year like in Poe’s time? We get asked that a lot, so our staff got busy researching and found some choice tidbits. For starters, his mother Elizabeth Arnold Poe was originally from England, so she might have introduced the young family to traditions from her own English Christmas traditions. We know from primary sources that Poe’s foster parents, John and Frances Allan enjoyed visiting friends at the holiday. In fact, the first Christmas they had the two year old Poe, they took him on holiday to a friend’s plantation at Turkey Island. When they lived in England for five years from 1815 to 1820, the Allans no doubt celebrated as the locals did, with natural greenery sprucing up their rooms, and festive feasts shared with friends and family.

In Richmond during Poe’s lifetime, Christmas was a somber, simple affair, far from the hubbub of today. Children might expect small gifts of gloves or scarves, and church service would be expected – in Poe’s case, in a pew at Monumental Church that Allan bought. It is generally believed that Frances Allan was a faithful Episcopalian, while her spouse John, as a native Scot, was perhaps a Presbyterian or a free thinker. Richmonders much preferred the holiday of New Year’s and there were lots of balls once the General Assembly commenced and legislators came to town.

The following is a recollection by Poe’s nurse, Marie Louise Shew of a Christmas side of Poe you might not have expected. On Christmas Eve 1847, Poe attended a church service with his nurse – she had been Virginia’s nurse also, before Mrs. Poe’s death in January of that year. The Reverend William Augustus Muhlenberg conducted the midnight service.

“[Poe] went with us, followed the service like a ‘churchman,’ looking directly towards the chancel, and holding one side of my prayer book. sang the psalms with us, and to my astonishment struck up a tenor to our sopranos and, got along nicely during the first part of the sermon, which was on the subject of the sympathies of our Lord, to our wants. The passage being often repeated, ‘He was a man of sorrows and acquainted with grief.’ He begged me to stay quiet that he would wait for me outside, and he rushed out, too excited to stay. I knew he would not leave us to return home alone, (altho’ my friend thought it doubtful), and so after the sermon as I began to feel anxious (as we were in a strange church) I looked back and saw his pale face, and as the congregation rose to sing the Hymn, ‘Jesus Saviour of my soul,’ he appeared at my side, and sang the Hymn, without looking at the book, in a fine, clear tenor… I did not dare to ask him why he left, but he mentioned after we got home, that the subject ‘was marvelously handled, and ought to have melted many hard hearts’ and ever after this he never passed Doctor Muhlenberg’s 20th St. Free Church without going in.” [Source: letter to J.H. Ingram, ca. 15 April 1875, Miller {1977}, pp. 132-33.].



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