Saturday, December 27, 2008

'Twas a Few Days After Christmas

If a poem can see 186 Christmases come and go without a lessening of its appeal, you know it is a classic. When Clement Clarke Moore penned it as a Christmas gift for his children in 1822, it was called "A Visit from St. Nicholas." In 1851, it's title was changed to "'Twas the Night Before Christmas."

Considering its ubiquitous popularity, I will presume that you have already read the work (or at least can find the text elsewhere) and will not attempt to reproduce said lines here. Instead, let us take into consideration where Mr. Moore found his inspiration for the jolly old elf, depicted above in an early illustration.

Can it be mere coincidence that the 1821 (just a year before Mr. Moore's poem was reportedly written, though it was not published until 1823) edition of Washington Irving's History of New-York from the Beginning of the World to the End of the Dutch Dynasty by Dietrich Knickerbocker, in which St. Nicholas (Irving's designated patron saint of New York) is described as:
. . . equipped with a low, broad-brimmed hat, a huge pair of Flemish trunk-hose, and a pipe that reached to the end of the bowsprit.

. . . riding over the tops of trees in that self-same wagon wherein he brings his yearly presents to children . . . And he lit his pipe by the fire, and sat himself down and smoked; and as he smoked, the smoke from his pipe ascended into the air and spread like a cloud overhead. . . . And when St. Nicholas had smoked his pipe, he twisted it in his hat-band, and laying his finger beside his nose, gave the astonished Van Kortlandt a very significant look; then, mounting his wagon, he returned over the tree-tops and disappeared.

And a few pages later, the same book expands further on the predilections of St. Nicholas:

At this early period was instituted that pious ceremony, still religiously observed in all our ancient families of the right breed, of hanging up a stocking in the chimney on St. Nicholas eve; which stocking is always found in the morning miraculously filled; for the good St. Nicholas has ever been a great giver of gifts, particularly to children.

We are told, in the sylvan days of New Amsterdam, the good St. Nicholas would often make his appearance in his beloved city, of a holiday afternoon, riding jollily among the tree-tops, or over the roofs of the houses, now and then drawing forth magnificent presents from his breeches-pockets, and dropping them down the chimneys of his favorites. Whereas, in these degenerate days of iron and brass, he never shows us the light of his countenance, nor ever visits us, save one night in the year, when he rattles down the chimneys of the descendants of patriarchs, confining his presents to children, in token of the degeneracy of the parents.

Clement Clarke Moore
I most emphatically do not wish to imply that Clement Clarke Moore, a professor at Columbia University and landowner whose estate, Chelsea, lent its name to the Manhattan neighborhood that grew up around it, was a plagiarist. It is merely meant to suggest that we might all do well to read a little more Washington Irving.
And perhaps it is also worth looking back occasionally at the way our cultural icons developed. For instance, in the early 1850s, a decade or so before Thomas Nast crystallized the image of Santa Claus with his illustrations for Harpers, P. T. Barnum was using this poster to promote Jenny Lind's American tour. The caption reads:
I'm a jolly old man--I ride in the wind;
The lady behind me is Miss Jenny Lind;
The horse that we ride is a broomstick, you see --
Oh! this is the horse for Miss Jenny and me.

P.S. In the interest of fair scholarship, let me reveal here and now that I first heard about the apparent connection between Moore's poem and Irving's satire in a book on the history of Christmas (I have misplaced the title and cannot look for it at present I am afraid). In the course of writing this post, I am indebted to Mr. Seth T. Kaller for the article on his website that confirmed my memory and supplied the date of Irving's second edition.

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