Many Historians use the poem now known as Twas the Night Before Christmas to mark the point where American Christmas began. Christmas has been celebrated in North America since Europeans began to arrive, but it was in the 19th century that uniquely American innovations and combinations of older European traditions can be clearly demarcated. As many literary types have pointed out, the poem, or at least the opening lines, are among the most well-known verses in the English language today.
But this is a home inspection blog, why the history lesson?
I want to argue that the home visited by St. Nicholas, the setting of the poem, is a great way to learn more about historic homes. The poem, first known as A Visit from St. Nicholas, was published in 1823, with Clement Clarke Moore laying claim to its authorship in 1837. This means that the setting for the poem is either just before or slightly into the Industrial Revolution. Consequently, the house envisioned is most likely from a time before the Industrial Revolution when absolutely every piece of a house was cut, fitted, and assembled by hand.
Thankfully, Winchester still has a healthy hoard of homes that were standing when this famous poem was penned, and I have had the privilege of inspecting for a number of folks drawn to this area because of our abundance of historic homes. My love for old homes is well-documented, but for all the individuality and intrinsic value they bear, I always advise buyers to be conscious when imposing modern expectations on older houses. For the unnamed witness to the Jolly Old Elf’s antics, systems like indoor plumbing, electricity, and central heat weren’t options. Understanding how houses once worked and acknowledging that most have been subjected to generations of retrofitting, should be a baseline for owning or buying a historic house.
Clement Clarke Moore:
Even though Moore’s authorship has been disputed in recent years, our investigation should start with the location likely envisioned by the author. The introduction to the 1912 Houghton-Mifflin edition of the poem notes that Moore was born near Chelsea Square, New York City in a large house with many fireplaces. The fireplaces of some large houses in Moore’s New York may have been coal-burning, but most historians point to the mid-19th C. as the point where coal overtook wood as the most popular fuel source in the U.S. Either way, the source of heat was one that had to be tended by hand – no thermostats here. If you or someone else didn’t get up at night to add wood or coal to the fire, it would be really cold in the morning. Combine this with what can best be described as a passing attempt at insulation and you get the real story of the poem, at least as far as home inspectors are concerned: It was dismally cold!
Let’s take a few lines from the poem to learn a little bit about what home life was like in the early 1800s.
“The stockings were
hung by the chimney with care
In hopes that St. Nicholas soon would be there”
The anticipatory setting out of shoes, socks, and the like has roots in the traditions ascribed St. Nicholas, the 4th C. saint who lived in what is now Turkey, and older northern European traditions, such as filling boots with hay for the Norse god Odin’s eight-legged horse, Sleipnir. However, there is also the practical matter of drying out clothes that have gotten wet from the winter rain and snow. Without electric dryers and with freezing temperatures outside, drying clothes by the fire was really the only option. And yes, it was also a huge fire hazard. If you have a fire at Christmas, it is totally worth getting those stockings well out of the way.
“And mamma in her
kerchief, and I in my cap,
Had just settled our brains for a long winter’s nap,”
Wearing hats to bed can be super cute – if you conveniently forget that this was a key part of not becoming a Popsicle. Go figure, a heat source that constantly needed to be replenished combined with no real insulation made for a perilous pair of circumstances in the winter. As we all learned in elementary school, people lose most of their body heat through their heads, hence wearing hats to bed. Drafty houses and irregular heating are also behind big bed canopies like the one Scrooge is frequently portrayed as hiding behind in A Christmas Carol (1843). These days bed canopies are ornamental, but once upon a time they were a heavy cloth covering to keep the draft out!
“Away to the window I
flew like a flash,
Tore open the shutters and threw up the sash.”
The shutters on the narrator’s window are, of course, interior shutters. Today, interior shutters are decorative or used to keep the sun out. Given that poem’s author was likely from New York City, a municipal location lighted at the time by oil street lamps, the shutters may have been keeping light from the street out, but I would argue that the shutters could well have been another means of keeping the whistling winter winds away. Solid shutters were sometimes used at this time along with heavy curtains to help quell the air leakage. Sealing against air leakage is still important today, though we do it more effectively. Most windows installed in our area in the last fifty or so years are double-pane glass. What stops air more effectively than one pane of glass? Two.
“And then, in a
twinkling, I heard on the roof
The prancing and pawing of each little hoof.”
Why can the narrator hear “each little hoof” and not just some indistinct noise? Because there is nothing resembling modern insulation between his bedroom and the roof. In addition to keeping heat in the house, insulation is also a great sound damper. The attics of new houses are eerily quiet and even batt insulation helps to decrease the decibels. But the poor benumbed narrator can hear everything above him as the meager heat from his dying fire seeps out of his uninsulated bedroom into the night.
This poem is losing its coziness.
“He was dressed all
in fur, from his head to his foot,
And his clothes were all tarnished with ashes and soot;”
Even kids notice that St. Nick here is not donning his now-familiar red with white trim. Skirting around which specific traditions fueled this poem, we should recognize that just wearing lots of heavy clothes is the go-to move for these characters when it comes to staying warm. You could argue that this was the early 19th century insulation system. Instead of wrapping their houses with insulation, they wrapped themselves. By combining effective insulation systems with self-regulating heat sources, we no longer have to bundle ourselves like arctic explorers before bed.
Aside from having fun with the poem, what does all this tell us about old homes?
With some exceptions, really old houses (pre-Civil War) focused more on the basic necessities of life: food, shelter, and substitute warmth for clothing (they are the same thing really). Sure, grand old houses feature well-wrought wood carvings and other amazing architectural features. But more than anything else, houses had to keep folks dry, above freezing, secure, and with a place to cook. Mechanical systems were less specialized and the expectations for comfort and communication were much lower. The fireplace was also the dryer, water heater, and the oven.
As I mentioned at the outset, many of our modern home systems didn’t even exist until relatively recently: electricity, indoor plumbing, heating and cooling systems that run themselves. Even a newer house than the one in the poem – from say the 1920s – probably had plumbing and electrical systems when it was built, but now whatever parts of these systems remain are undersized and outdated. I often make comparisons to cars. Nobody would expect a car from the 1920s to perform the same way a new model does. Model Ts do just fine in parades, but don’t take one out on I81. Given this dynamic, all of the historic houses I have inspected have had some major work done to their mechanical systems; so the question becomes whether or not the updates were done well and/or correctly.
Finally, know that finding that sweet spot between historic charm and modern convenience one takes a lot of patience. It makes sense if you think about it. One of a kind is a much loftier goal than one size fits all.
 Moore’s authorship has been questioned for some time, but this contention has little bearing on the exercise at hand.
 The mention of the “lawn”, “wall”, and the moon on the snow also give the impression of a house with grounds, a more spacious arrangement than what most people associate with urban living these days.
 Sound also travels better through cold, dense air.
 Yes. I know the Romans had plumbing, but it was still a rarity in the 19th C.