Every year, the Poe Museum celebrates the holiday season with the Poe Illumination in which visitors can experience Victorian Christmas music and crafts that Edgar Allan Poe himself would have enjoyed. In fact, the people in Poe’s time were largely responsible for shaping the way Americans celebrate Christmas today. Without them, Christmas would lack poinsettias, mistletoe, and the names of Santa’s flying reindeer. You might be surprised to discover some of the ways the holidays evolved during Poe’s lifetime (1809-1849).
Christmas Comes to America
Christmas was one of the English holidays many Americans chose not to observe immediately after the Revolution because Americans wanted to break away from English traditions, but European immigrants brought their various traditions of the rowdy, licentious winter holiday with them. In Northern Europe, this was traditionally a twelve-night party at the end of harvest. In the early days, people ate well during this time because they had to slaughter some of their animals rather than try to feed them all winter. By the 1820s, the immigrants and lower classes in urban America still got rowdy at Christmas time and even rioted. In 1828, the New York City Council established its police force after an especially rowdy Christmas season, so the high Christmas crime rate is the reason we have the NYPD.
Christmas in Popular Culture
While living in England in 1821, America’s most popular writer Washington Irving wrote the serialized novel Bracebridge Hall about life in an English manor house including descriptions of an English Christmas. This helped expose the average American to English Christmas traditions. In 1823, the New York theologian Clement Clarke Moore wrote “A Visit from St. Nicholas,” which we now call “’Twas the Night Before Christmas,” and it became a hit. In 1843, Charles Dickens wrote “A Christmas Carol,” which was popular on both sides of the Atlantic.
The Christmas Tree
The Germans had long decorated evergreens as part of winter celebrations. In 1840 Victoria and her German cousin Albert married, and he brought German Christmas traditions with him to England. In 1846, the London Illustrated News carried a picture of a Christmas tree in Victoria’s home, and that started the fad in both England and America. People decorated trees with lemon slices, pine cones, and other stuff they could find. They also put Christmas presents in the trees. When presents started getting too big, we had to put them under the tree.
In 1825, Joel R. Poinsett, America’s ambassador to Mexico, brought to the United States a green and red flower from Mexico, where it had already been a part of celebrations. Its association with Christmas began in the 16th century in Mexico where there is a legend about a girl too poor to get a present for Jesus’s birthday. An angel told her to pick some weeds, so she picked them and put them in front of the altar, where they sprouted red blossoms.
In 1843 in England J.C. Horsely printed the first Christmas card.
Mistletoe is carryover from earlier, rowdy Christmas. Its presence at Victorian celebrations allowed proper people to engage in behavior that would have been otherwise unacceptable.
Protestants started attending Christmas services in Catholic and Episcopal churches until other denominations came around.
The modern Santa Claus developed in America. The Dutch brought traditions of St. Nicolas to the New World. In 1823, the Professor of Oriental and Greek Literature, as well as Divinity and Biblical Learning, at the General Theological Seminary of the Protestant Episcopal Churchan Episcopal minister in New York, Clement Clarke Moore, wrote “A Visit from St. Nicholas” (better known as “’Twas the Night Before Christmas”) to entertain his children. He came up with the names of the reindeer and the idea of Santa coming down the chimney. At first, he didn’t reveal his authorship because the church didn’t approve of secular Christmas celebrations—especially from someone teaching at their seminary—but he later confessed. Even after the poem, people still didn’t know what Santa looked like, so depictions of him gave him the appearance of anything from an elf to a skinny old man. In 1863, Thomas Nast, a cartoonist for Harper’s Weekly, was the first to draw the modern Santa, and he made modeled Santa after a robber baron.
Christmas Eve Services
When Christmas started getting popular in America, most American Protestant churches, which didn’t care much for saints or feast days, did not want to celebrate the winter carnival, so members of their congregations started attending Christmas Eve services at Catholic and Episcopal churches until the others broke down and decided to get in on the action. Of course, some Protestant denominations still don’t celebrate Christmas.
Poe and Christmas
Poe experienced Christmas in a variety of different ways throughout his life. Coming from England, Poe’s mother would have known the English Christmas traditions. Although he owned a pew in Richmond’s Monumental Episcopal Church, Poe’s Scottish-born foster father John Allan was likely either a Presbyterian or a free thinker, but he did observe the holiday by spending it with friends. Within a few weeks of moving in with the Allans, the two-year-old Poe joined them in taking a Christmas vacation to his foster parents’ friend’s plantation on Turkey Island. Incidentally, this is why the Allans weren’t in the Richmond Theater the night it burned—taking with it the lives of seventy-two prominent Richmonders. Learn more about the Richmond Theater Fire here.
Poe was with the Allans in England for five years (1815-1820), so he would have seen English Christmases first-hand during that time. On December 25, 1818 Allan received a bill for Poe’s tuition and expenses at the Manor House School. At the end of the bill, there is a note that the vacation will terminate on January 25, so it appears Poe was on Christmas vacation from this boarding school for about a month. Returning to Richmond in 1820, the Allans spent Christmas that year with the Ellis family at their home at Second and Franklin Streets. It is likely the Allans would have spent most Christmas
As an adult, Poe, like a lot of people, worked on Christmas Day, so there are some business letters written by him dated December 25. Christmas was also a good time for Poe to sell his stories to gift books. In the 1830s, American publishers started issuing deluxe gift books each year around Christmas. Poe contributed to several installments (1836, 1840, 1842, 1843, 1845) of the most popular of these, The Gift: A Christmas and New Year’s Present. He also contributed to The Baltimore Book: A Christmas and New Year’s Present in 1838, The Opal in 1844 and 1845, The Missionary Memorial in 1846, and the May Flower in 1846. The Irving Offering and the American Keepsake published his works immediately after his death.
On Christmas Eve 1847, Poe attended a church service with his nurse Marie Louise Shew and another lady to a midnight service conducted by Reverend William Augustus Muhlenberg. (She had been Virginia’s nurse before Virginia died in January of that year.) Mrs. Shew recalls:
He [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 Muhlenbergs 20th St. Free Church without going in (letter to J. H. Ingram, ca. 15 April 1875, Miller , pp. 132-33).
A year later, in 1848, Poe intended to marry the Providence, Rhode Island poet Sarah Helen Whitman on Christmas Day, which was on a Monday, but she broke off the engagement on December 23. This would be Poe’s last Christmas. He died October 7, 1849.
As you celebrate the holidays this year, look out for some of the traditions Poe would have known that are still observed today. If you are going to be in Richmond, be sure to visit the Poe Museum’s Poe Illumination on December 5 from 6-9p.m.