Wednesday, December 23, 2015

St. Nick’s Sleigh Makes its First Landing

An Illustration from an early edition of A Visit from St. Nicholas  shows that his appearence had not yet found its modern form.

On December 23, 1823 the Troy, New York Sentinel anonymously published a poem under the title of A Visit from St. Nicholas.  In fifty six lines the poem essentially created Santa Claus a/k/a St. Nick as we know him today—a magical being who flies on Christmas Eve in a sleigh pulled by eight reindeer, enters a home via the chimney, delivers toys to children from his bag, and flies away wishing “Happy Christmas to all, and to all a goodnight!”  Details of St. Nicholas’s exact appearance would be worked out by illustrators including Thomas Nast, Norman Rockwell, and Haddon Sundblom over the next century or so and much back story and elaborations, such as a North Pole workshop and elves would be added.  But essentially Santa was born with that poem.
In the custom of the day, other newspapers picked up and reprinted the poem.  Within five years it had become something of a Yuletide staple in newsprint and other writers began to pick up on this new version of St. Nicholas.  He first took root as a tradition in many household in New York, the home of many Dutch descendant who easily embraced the transition from their traditional Sinterklass.

Clement Clarke Moore

Twenty-one years later, Clement Clarke Moore, a very serious and high minded professor of Oriental and Greek Literature at Columbia College, finally publicly claimed authorship when, at the insistence of his now grown children, reluctantly allowed the poem to be included in an published collection of his more serious poetic efforts. 
Born on Manhattan in 1779 to a Patriot family in still British occupied New York, Moore was raised devout Episcopalian, Federalist, and conservative.  Both his wife’s and his own families were slave holders as long as it was legal in the state and he remained an outspoken anti-abolitionist his whole life.  He also objected to paying taxes for urban improvements like streets and sanitary drainage.  He opposed the extension of the voting franchise beyond wealthy landowners, abhorred the urban poor, and the “devil of Democracy.”
Moore’s estate, Chelsea, lay outside of the developed city. It was that stately house that Moore envisioned in his poem.  Moore’s wife, Catharine Elizabeth Taylor was a descendent of the Van Cortlandt family, Dutch patroons, once the major landholders in the lower Hudson Valley. After years of fighting, often successfully, the encroachment of the city, Moore began to develop the estate himself in the 1850’s.  He subdivided part for posh brownstones for the city’s elite and deeded his orchard to the General Theological Seminary where he also was for many years a professor of Biblical Learning.  The Seminary stands today the neighborhood of Chelsea, all on Moore’s original estate.

Chelsea House, manor home of the Clement Carke Moore's estate and a perfect landing zone for St. Nicholas.
Whatever Moore’s political and religious beliefs, he was a doting and devoted father to several children.  He may have been regaling them with stories of St. Nicholas for sometime.  A letter thought to have been written as early as 1820 mentioned the Christmas visitor.  He clearly was familiar with the Dutch traditions through his wife and through his close friend, Washington Irving, who had included Sinterklaas tales in his A History of New York written in 1809 under the nom de plume of Dietrich Knickerbocker. 
But Moore altered Irving’s version in important ways.  Most obviously, he changed Irving’s horse drawn flying wagon to the reindeer propelled sleigh.  He also changed the time of the visit from Christmas Day to Christmas Eve.  This was not accidental.  Although the celebration of Christmas was growing in popularity, many Protestants still resisted the holiday because of its identification with the Catholic mass.  By moving St. Nick’s visit to Christmas Eve, which is not a Catholic Holy Day, Moore made it acceptable.
By the time Moore died at his summer home in Newport, Rhode Island in 1863, his poem was published in many editions, some of which changed the title to The Night Before Christmas after the poem’s famous first line.  Many editions made other minor changes, most notably the names of one pair of the reindeer.  Moore’s original Dutch Dunder and Blixem (Thunder and Lightning in English) morphed into the German Donder and Blitzen.  Still later, others versions dropped the “d” from Donder.  As Merry Christmas became the standard holiday greeting that phrase was often substituted for Happy Christmas in the poem’s last lines.
Because Moore staked his claim of authorship years after the first appearance, literary conspiracy theorists have made a cottage industry of yelling fraud and proposing other authors.  The most frequently cited candidate is Henry Livingston, a twig on the family tree of the wealthy and powerful Livingston family who was a Dutch Reform minister and minor poet from Poughkeepsie.  His descendants claim to have seen a manuscript of the poem in Henry’s hand which, conveniently, was destroyed in a fire.  But Livingston has his proponents and a mock trial on the claim was held at the Rensselaer County Courthouse in Troy on December 18, 2013.  High priced legal talent strutted their stuff and the result was a hung jury. 
Most literary experts are not as gullible as at least some members of the moot trial jury.  I’m no expert, but I will stand with Moore as the genuine author.

The evolution of St.Nicholas to Santa Claus shown in this illustration--From a Latinized version of the Bishop of Myra, to Thomas Nasts defining post-Civil War version, to Haddon Sundblom's Coca Cola Santa credited with the modern vision.  
Hardly a year goes by without at least one new illustrated edition of the classic poem, which has been called, “…the best-known verses ever written by an American.”  It has also inspired numerous musical adaptations, stage plays, live action and animated films, and T.V. shows.  And, inevitably, it has been endlessly parodied.
But the poem lives on because many families still make it an annual tradition to read on every Christmas Eve the poem Clement Clarke Moore was embarrassed to admit he wrote.

1 comment:

  1. far back as I can remember, Patrick, I've always distrusted the vast majority of the words of literary critics...