Saturday, December 21, 2013

A Visit From St. Nicholas

The Coming of Santa Claus by Thomas Nast, 1872
On 23 December 1823 the poem "A Visit From St. Nicholas", now better known as "'Twas the Night Before Christmas", was published anonymously in The Troy Sentinel (of Troy, New York).  It would later be reprinted with no credit to an author. In fact, it was not until 1837 that credit for writing the poem would be given to Clement Clarke Moore in print. In 1844 Clement Clarke Moore included "A Visit From St. Nicholas" in his poetry anthology simply entitled Poems. While Clement Clarke Moore has traditionally been regarded as the author of the poem (indeed, before its appearance in Mr. Moore's anthology Poems at least seven other people other than himself had recognised him as the author), some have questioned if "A Visit From St. Nicholas" wasn't written by someone else.

Namely, even during the lifetime of Clement Clarke Moore there were those who believed it was actually written by artist and poet Henry Livingston, Jr. Mr. Livingston's sons as well as one of their neighbour's daughters claimed that Mr. Livingston had read the poem to them as far back as 1807. The family even claimed to have found Mr. Livingston's original handwritten copy, which they would later claim to have lost in a house fire. The dispute over authorship would be carried on by Harold Livingston, Jr. and Clement Clarke Moore's descendants well into the 20th Century.

Even the academic community has argued whether it was Clement Clarke Moore or Harold Livingston, Jr. who wrote "A Visit From St. Nicholas". Donald Foster, professor of English at Vassar College in New York, analysed the text of the poem and concluded that Harold Livingston, Jr. was most likely the author of the poem. Historical document dealer Seth Kaller has disputed Professor Foster's claims, relying on work done by autograph appraiser James Lowe and historical document expert Dr. Joe Nickell.

While we might never be certain who actually wrote "A Visit From St. Nicholas", we can be certain the poem helped shape the conception of Santa Claus in the United States. Much of the groundwork had already been done by Washington Irving, who established Santa Claus as a jolly, rosy cheeked figure who smokes a pipe, drives a sleigh guided by a reindeer,  and goes down chimneys to deliver his gifts. To this the author of "A Visit from St. Nicholas" added a few other details. It is here that Santa Claus is first portrayed as dressed in fur and having "a little round belly". It is also in "A Visit From St. Nicholas" that we are first told the specific number of reindeer who guide his sleigh (eight of them) and we are told their names. Cartoonist Thomas Nast would later further refine the image of Santa Claus starting with cartoons in Harper's Weekly in 1862. Of course, since the image of Santa Claus would be further shaped by artists Fred Mizen and, more significantly, Haddon Sundblom in advertisements for Coca-Cola. Of course, since then there have been numerous songs, films, and even television specials that have added to the legend of Santa, but it all began with Washington Irving and whoever wrote "A Visit From St. Nicholas".

Here is the original poem. Given the controversy over authorship, I am not giving credit except to say it was either Clement Clarke Moore or Harold Livingston, Jr. I will say it was not me (I'm not nearly that old).

 "A Visit from St. Nicholas" (AKA "'Twas the Night Before Christmas")

 'Twas the night before Christmas, when all through the house
Not a creature was stirring, not even a mouse;
The stockings were hung by the chimney with care,
In hopes that St. Nicholas soon would be there;
The children were nestled all snug in their beds,
While visions of sugar-plums danced in their heads;
And mamma in her ’kerchief, and I in my cap,
Had just settled our brains for a long winter’s nap,
When out on the lawn there arose such a clatter,
I sprang from the bed to see what was the matter.
Away to the window I flew like a flash,
Tore open the shutters and threw up the sash.
The moon on the breast of the new-fallen snow
Gave the lustre of mid-day to objects below,
When, what to my wondering eyes should appear,
But a miniature sleigh, and eight tiny reindeer,
With a little old driver, so lively and quick,
I knew in a moment it must be St. Nick.
More rapid than eagles his coursers they came,
And he whistled, and shouted, and called them by name;
"Now, Dasher! now, Dancer! now, Prancer and Vixen!
On, Comet! on, Cupid! on, Donder and Blitzen!
To the top of the porch! to the top of the wall!
Now dash away! dash away! dash away all!"
As dry leaves that before the wild hurricane fly,
When they meet with an obstacle, mount to the sky;
So up to the house-top the coursers they flew,
With the sleigh full of Toys, and St. Nicholas too.
And then, in a twinkling, I heard on the roof
The prancing and pawing of each little hoof.
As I drew in my head, and was turning around,
Down the chimney St. Nicholas came with a bound.
He was dressed all in fur, from his head to his foot,
And his clothes were all tarnished with ashes and soot;
A bundle of Toys he had flung on his back,
And he looked like a peddler just opening his pack.
His eyes—how they twinkled! his dimples how merry!
His cheeks were like roses, his nose like a cherry!
His droll little mouth was drawn up like a bow
And the beard of his chin was as white as the snow;
The stump of a pipe he held tight in his teeth,
And the smoke it encircled his head like a wreath;
He had a broad face and a little round belly,
That shook when he laughed, like a bowlful of jelly.
He was chubby and plump, a right jolly old elf,
And I laughed when I saw him, in spite of myself;
A wink of his eye and a twist of his head,
Soon gave me to know I had nothing to dread;
He spoke not a word, but went straight to his work,
And filled all the stockings; then turned with a jerk,
And laying his finger aside of his nose,
And giving a nod, up the chimney he rose;
He sprang to his sleigh, to his team gave a whistle,
And away they all flew like the down of a thistle,
But I heard him exclaim, ere he drove out of sight,
"Happy Christmas to all, and to all a good-night."

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