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Gilded Age illustration of a moonlit, snowy night with a horse drawn coach outside a mansion. People cast long shadows on the snow.
"Christmas Eve," an illustration published by Joseph Hoover, likely in the late 19th century. Artist unknown. Prints and Photographs Division.

Holiday Cheer? Try These Seasonal Favorites

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Every year, a handful of holiday stories pop up as reader favorites in the Library’s archives.

During the last three weeks of December, familiar stories return to the top of our “most read” list. Some are more than a decade old, others just a few years. Some are sentimental, others are relate the backstories of holiday traditions. But they all share something that people like during these short days, long nights and chilly weather — a good story.

Here’s the beginning of one: “Imagine a morning in late November.”

That’s the start of Truman Capote’s 1956 classic short story, “A Christmas Memory.” It’s the bittersweet tale, heavily autobiographical, of his childhood relationship with his eccentric elderly relative, Nanny Rumbley Faulk.

Famously, she arises one morning each year, their old Alabama house so cold that frost ices the windowpanes, and exclaims, “Oh my! It’s fruitcake weather!”

The Library has a significant collection of Capote’s early-career papers, including his handwritten first draft of the story.  We wrote about how the story came to be two years ago and it grows more popular each holiday season. Readers comment that they are moved not just by a nostalgia for the rural, innocent era he describes, but by their own childhood memories of seeing stage, film and television adaptations of the story.

A sheet of lined notebook paper, with small cursive handwriting
The opening page of “A Christmas Memory” in Capote’s handwriting. Manuscript Division.

Elsewhere, readers are in more of an investigative mood, pondering the age-old question: Who the heck invented Christmas tree lights, anyway?

We addressed this question early in our online history and revisit it every few years. As it turns out, the answer is pretty straightforward: Thomas Edison, the inventor of the light bulb, and Edward H. Johnson, his friend and business partner. The takeaway is that almost as soon as there were electric lights, people started putting them on Christmas trees. (The Library has a phenomenal collection of Edison’s early films and recording, by the way.) Still, that didn’t mean it caught on with the masses. It took more than four decades for the idea to catch on across the country and that eventual explanation involves President Grover Cleveland and a teenager name Albert Sadacca.

Photo shows the National Christmas Tree on the Ellipse of the White House, with the Washington Monument in the background.
Hard to imagine the National Christmas Tree without lights. Photo: Carol M. Highsmith, 1997. Prints and Photographs Division.

Other readers are piqued by the ubiquity of those lovely red flowering plants you see in every office lobby at Christmas. The plants are native to Mexico and Central America, where they have been known for ages as cuetlaxóchitl in Nahuatl, the regional language.

We call them poinsettias, and buy them in astonishing numbers each holiday season, due to the efforts of Joel Poinsett, a U.S. diplomat in Mexico in the early 19th century, who brought them back to the U.S. and first popularized them. As to their commercial success today, that involves a California flower-growing businessman named Albert Ecke and his son, Paul.

Curl up with any of these short pieces and enjoy the holidays!

Romantic, sof-focus, head-and-shoulders illustration of a young woman with thick brown hair falling over her shoulders, with a bright red poinsettia flower in front of her
A “Gibson girl” style illustration, 1910. Illustrator/publisher unknown. Prints and Photographs Division.

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