A Visit from St. Nick


’Twas the night before Christmas, when all thro’ 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;

Before you start groaning and moaning and rolling your eyes, I must warn you, I am about to introduce some avant-garde notions that will make you question everything you ever knew about Santa Claus, and the beloved poem that shaped the Christmas mythology for most modern Americans.

For almost 200 years, the poem entitled, “Account of a Visit from St. Nicholas”, and commonly known as “A Night before Christmas” has been read to American children on Christmas Eve. It has been published in countless books, included in numerous collections and even turned into song, movie and parody. It is, no doubt, the best known poem ever written by an American.

But, who wrote it?

The children were nestled all snug in their beds,
While visions of sugar plums danc’d in their heads,
And Mama 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.

The verse was first published in the Troy, New York Sentinel, in the year 1823 as “Account of a Visit from St. Nicholas” by “Anonymous”. For the next 15 years the popularity of the poem grew; as did, its depiction of St. Nick as a “right jolly old elf”.

But, who wrote it?

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 rein-deer,
With a little old driver, so lively and quick,
I knew in a moment it must be St. Nick.

Image from http://www.saintnicholas.org/

In the early 1800’s, most protestant Americans preferred to celebrate their major winter holiday on New Year’s Day. Protestants rejected Christmas as “Catholic ignorance and deception”. His arrival on Christmas Eve, rather than Christmas Day, allowed the St. Nicholas in this poem to become not only acceptable, but also fashionable. In their book, Gotham: A History of New York City to 1898, Edwin Burroughs and Mike Wallace explained that, “New Yorkers embraced (the poems) child-centered version of Christmas as if they had been doing it all their lives.”

The question remains, who wrote the poem?

In 1837, Charles Fenno Hoffman began to tell people that his friend, Clement Clark Moore penned the poem. Moore, a staunch Episcopal, was a stern father to his 6 children. He was best known for his political pamphlets, not his verse. He has been described as a dour, straight-laced academician. Moore disavowed the poem until 1844 when, at the request of his children, he included it in an anthology of his work.

According to legend, Moore drew inspiration for “his” St. Nick from the traditional legends of St. Nicholas, mixed with the image of a local Dutch handyman he encountered whilst shopping on a horse-drawn sleigh.

The “real” St. Nicholas, a Greek Bishop from the southern coast of modern day Turkey, died on December 6, in the year 343 A.D. His parents died when he was just a boy, and he used his inheritance to assist the needy, sick and suffering throughout his entire life. He was given Sainthood in the year 1087 and December 6 has forever after been St. Nicholas Day. He is the patron saint of over 120 different groups, including thieves, pirates, lawyers, virgins, wood turners, archers and children.

The tradition of hanging stockings by the fireplace came from the belief that St. Nicholas threw gold down the chimneys of three women with no dowries so that they could marry. The gold landed in their shoes by the hearth.

As the purported author of “Account of a Visit from St. Nicholas” Moore has been credited with popularizing the stocking tradition and the current Santa Claus mythology. In 2000, Don Foster, a Vassar professor, caused a veritable ruckus when he compared Moore to Dr. Seuss’s Grinch and declared him a literary fraud.
For seven generations, the descendants of Major Henry Livingston, Jr. have insisted that it was Livingston, not Moore, who penned the verse. Livingston died in 1828. Conveniently, when Moore took credit for the poem in 1844, no one from the Sentinel remained alive who could rebuke his claim. In the late 1990’s, 150 years later, the Livingston family recruited Foster, a well-known literary detective to help prove their ancestor was the author. His avant-garde conclusion, currently not accepted by most historians, supports the Livingston family. The Poetry Foundation, on the other hand, gives full credit on their website to Major Henry Livingston, Jr. in their reprinting of “Account of a Visit from St. Nicholas”.

More rapid than eagles his coursers they came,
And he whistled, and shouted, and call’d them by name:
“Now! Dasher, now! Dancer, now! Prancer, and Vixen,
“On! Comet, on! Cupid, on! Dunder and Blixem;

One of the chief arguments for Livingston as author is the originally published version named the final reindeer Dunder and Blixem, Dutch for thunder and lightning. In four handwritten copies, written decades after the original, Moore replaced these names with their German counterparts Donner and Blitzen. Donner is, by the way, a misspelling of Donder. Moore did not speak Dutch. Livingston was of Dutch descent.

One of those four handwritten copies fetched a neat $211,000 at auction in 1997.

“To the top of the porch! to the top of the wall!
“Now dash away! dash away! dash away all!”
As dry leaves 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.

Another argument in Livingston’s favor is that the poem is written in anapestic meter, meaning two unstressed syllables followed by one stressed syllable. (Da da dum da da dum.) This style of poetry had been commonly used by Livingston but not Moore.

As I drew in my head, and was turning around,
Down the chimney St. Nicholas came with a bound:
He was dress’d all in fur, from his head to his foot,
And his clothes were all tarnish’d with ashes and soot;
A bundle of toys was flung on his back,
And he look’d 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.

Another argument against Moore, is that he condemned tobacco use while Livingston embraced bawdier literary themes.

He had a broad face, and a little round belly
That shook when he laugh’d, like a bowl full of jelly:
He was chubby and plump, a right jolly old elf,
And I laugh’d when I saw him in spite of myself;

Regardless of authorship, the image of St. Nicholas with a round belly and rosy cheeks is contrary to the accepted vision of the time. Historical renderings of the real St. Nicholas depict a tall, thin man with a receding hairline and white beard. A few paintings of St. Nicholas as Patron Saint of children show him in white robes with red cloak. The poems jolly ol’ elf is now the modern day accepted visage of Santa Claus.

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 fill’d all the stockings; then turn’d with a jerk,
And laying his finger aside of his nose
And giving a nod, up the chimney he rose.
He sprung 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.

The version of the poem I have shared is the original, word-for-word, as printed in the Troy Sentinel. Even in 1823, “Merry Christmas” was the standard vernacular. However, Livingston was known to prefer saying “Happy Christmas”.

As I stated earlier, Moore disavowed the poem for almost 20 years, as being beneath his stature in society. I’d like to offer a work by Moore that he was proud to claim. In 1821, he published the following poem “Old Santeclaus” in the 16 page booklet entitled “New-Year’s Present to the Little Ones from Five to Twelve.”

Old SANTECLAUS with much delight
His reindeer drives this frosty night,
O’er chimney-tops, and tracks of snow,
To bring his yearly gifts to you.

The steady friend of virtuous youth,
The friend of duty, and of truth,
Each Christmas eve he joys to come
Where love and peace have made their home.

Through many houses he has been,
And various beds and stockings seen;
Some, white as snow, and neatly mended,
Others, that seemed for pigs intended.

Where e’er I found good girls or boys,
That hated quarrels, strife and noise,
I left an apple, or a tart,
Or wooden gun, or painted cart.

To some I gave a pretty doll,
To some a peg-top, or a ball;
No crackers, cannons, squibs, or rockets,
To blow their eyes up, or their pockets.

No drums to stun their Mother’s ear,
Nor swords to make their sisters fear;
But pretty books to store their mind
With knowledge of each various kind.

But where I found the children naughty,
In manners rude, in temper haughty,
Thankless to parents, liars, swearers,
Boxers, or cheats, or base tale-bearers,

I left a long, black, birchen rod,
Such as the dread command of God
Directs a Parent’s hand to use
When virtue’s path his sons refuse.

And with that, I shall let you decide for yourself, if believe that just one year after writing how Santeclaus would bring a birchen rod for a parent to use on their naughty son, the same author could have possibly written the beloved tale that has shaped the American Santa Claus myth for two centuries.

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