In the annual reading of the famous poem by Clement C. Moore, "An Account of the Visit From Saint Nicholas", we often treat it as a work only for the enjoyment of children, forgetting that Moore was an accomplished scholar and teacher. In truth, there is there is a richness and depth to the poem worthy of an adult's notice.
Legend has it that in December of 1822, on Christmas eve, Clement C. Moore penned “An Account of a Visit From St. Nicholas.” So that the next morning he could read the poem to the amusement of his children.
It was many years before Moore could publicly acknowledge authorship of the poem. He was, after all, the son of the Bishop of New York — with a father important enough to have attended George Washington’s inaugural and minister to the dying Alexander Hamilton after his duel with Aaron Burr. Clement Moore also was, in his own right, a classical scholar and linguist, a member of New York City’s upper class, the pioneer of Hebrew lexicography in America, a founder of the General Theological Seminary in New York City and, for thirty years, a professor of Oriental and Greek literature. No, it is not likely that he wished to be remembered for creating a child’s verse.
But then, “An Account of a Visit From St. Nicholas” is not really just a story for children. There is a richness and depth to the poem that could only be for adults.
One place we find it is in the spirited meter. Moore used anapestic tetrameter. Twelve years earlier, in 1810, John Pintard used the same meter in another poem about Santa Claus that appeared in a New York newspaper. Pintard and Moore were hardly strangers. Both held a fondness for history, ceremonies, rituals and traditions; both were part of the city’s elite; they worked together on the establishment of the General Theological Seminary; and both were “Knickerbockers”, a group of New York gentry and a sort of literary circle that was responsible for publishing much of American literature. So it is quite possible that Moore consciously borrowed the anapestic tetrameter from his friend John Pintard.
We also see it in the poem’s structure, which may have been drawn from a work even earlier than that of Pintard’s. It is remarkably similar to a verse titled “The Day of Doom”, published in 1622 and written by Massachusetts clergyman Michael Wigglesworth. Like “An account of a Visit From St. Nicholas,” “The Day of Doom” begins with people sleeping serenely and dreaming of good things to come. Suddenly the calm is shattered by a sound that rouses the sleepers and causes them to leap out of bed and run to the window. There they witness the arrival of an unexpected supernatural visitor, accompanied by other magical creatures. Unlike Moore’s St. Nicholas, however, this visitor has come to judge and separate those who can look forward to eternal hope from those who cannot.
[“Twas the night before Christmas.] Today we take for granted that St. Nicholas arrives on Christmas eve. But that hasn’t always been the case. In Moore’s time there were actually three different nights for the arrival of Santa Claus: the traditional date of December 5th, the eve of St. Nicholas’s feast day as established by the Catholic church centuries earlier; December 24, Christmas eve; and December 31, New Year’s eve. In fact, the first line of Moore’s poem was printed “’Twas the night before New Year’s” as often as it was printed “’Twas the night before Christmas” and there was a standing joke that Santa Claus only had to work two nights a year.
[The stockings were hung by the chimney with care.] The hanging of stockings near the chimney in anticipation of the arrival of Saint Nicholas is a reference to one of the earliest tales attached to the legend. It goes something like this. Somewhere around 300 AD in the town of Myra in Turkey young bishop Nicholas heard about three daughters who had come of age to be married. Their father was too poor to afford an appropriate dowry and that meant the daughters would have to be sold into prostitution. Upon hearing of the girls’ plight, each night for three nights Nicholas secretly came to their house and tossed a bag of gold through the chimney and into a stocking. In so doing he saved the girls from their plight. For the most part, Turkey is a warm country, and so the chimney was a simple hole cut in the top of the living quarters to let the smoke from the cooking fires escape. The stockings were part of the clothing worn by the girls each day and, because they were poor, simply washed out and hung to dry each night.
[In hopes that Saint Nicholas soon would be there.] By the time Moore wrote his poem most Americans were calling him Santa Claus, not Saint Nicholas, so it is probably Moore’s classical training as a professor that led him to write “Saint Nicholas”. Interestingly enough, there is no evidence to support his existence of Saint Nicholas as a real person. It is more likely that he was the fictitious creation of the early christian church as part of an effort to eliminate pagan worship of ancient gods. Think of it this way. Poseidon was the Greek god of the sea and the giver of life, and before every voyage sailors would go to the temple and offer prayers for safe journey. The early christian church wouldn’t have been particularly successful in eliminating such a popular pagan god, but they might succeed in renaming Poseidon with a more christian name. So it may be more than coincidence that Poseidon was god of the sea and Nicholas was protector of sailors; that there was a temple to Poseidon in Myra as well as a church for Nicholas; and that Poseidon was honored annually on December 6th, the same date as Nicholas’s feast day.
[The children were nestled all snug in their beds.] Moore lived before central forced air heating. The common source of heat was a fireplace and most of the bedrooms in a house would be the farthest rooms from the central chimney, and the coldest. So when people went to bed they really did get snug in their beds nestled under warm layers of quilts and coverlets.
[While visions of sugarplums danced in their heads.] Christmas has long been a time of feasting, and the gifts most often given to children have not been toys but food items — special fruits, and baked goods like cakes and cookies. Sugarplums were bonbons, a candy or sweetmeat made up in small balls, and so it was only logical that when children went to bed and dreamed about Christmas their thoughts would turn to sugarplums.
[Had just settled our brains for a long winter’s nap.] This may be Moore’s oblique reference to the old pagan mid-winter festivals that gave birth to our celebration of Christmas. Centuries before Christianity, about 4000 BC, the first European group to emerge from the stone age into recorded history were the Celtic people, and they established the winter solstice and winter celebrations. Later the Romans formalized those celebrations into national holidays, the most important of which was the Saturnalia, held in late December. Far to the north Teutonic people celebrated a similar midwinter festival called Yule or Yuletide. So when Clement Moore wrote “had just settled our brains for a long winter’s nap” he quite possibly was making reference to ancient midwinter festivals and the almost prehistoric idea, shared by much of Europe, that the land goes to sleep during the winter months and does not awaken until spring.
[But a miniature sleigh and eight tiny reindeer.] During the almost fifteen hundred years of his European history, Saint Nicholas tended to arrive on horseback, by boat, on a donkey or simply walking. Once the legend arrived in America, Washington Irving had him flying through the sky in a wagon. It is not until the appearance of a small volume in 1821 entitled “A Children’s Friend” that Saint Nicholas is first put in a sleigh, and it is pulled only by a single reindeer. The book was published in New York as a New Year’s gift for children, and Moore would have been familiar enough with it to borrow from it.
[Now Dasher! Now, Dancer! Now, Prancer! And Vixen! On, Comet! On, Cupid! On, Donder and Blitzen!] Dasher, Dancer, Prancer, and Comet all suggest speed and/or agility. Vixen, a female fox, would also suggest speed, as would the ancient god Cupid who was swift of wing. It has been suggested that Donder and Blitzen are the German words for Thunder and Lightning, and well they might be. But Moore’s original Donder and Blitzen were misspelled as “Dunder and Blixem” in the first publication of the poem by the Troy Sentinel, and “Dunder and Blixum” is a swearing phrase used by Dutch characters in Irving’s “Knickerbocker History”.
[With a sleigh full of toys, and Saint Nicholas, too.] The whole idea of Santa giving toys is a relatively recent tradition. The earliest St. Nicholas gave three bags of gold to three young girls, and in another story he returns three young boys to life. Later he rewards children with switches and coal if they are bad, and fruits and cakes or cookies if they are good. Even when the legend arrives in America the gifts to children remain simple — special baked treats, store-bought candy, knitted or stitched items, carved toys. It is not until the late 1800’s, long after Moore’s poem, that gifts come to mean all the items and toys that we now take for granted.
[He was dressed all in fur from his head to his foot.] Moore has him dressed all in fur. But as a bishop and a saint, Nicholas would have been dressed in the long flowing robes of the church and would have carried the traditional mitre and crozen (staff and hat). Fur would not have been introduced until the legend merged with various stories from colder countries in northern Europe. The most notable example would be the German Pelz-Nicol (“Nicholas in fur”) whose story would have been brought to America with German immigrants.
[And he looked like a peddler just opening his pack.] This was a drastic departure from the European Saint Nicholas as a man of the cloth with authority, power and patrician dignity. The European Saint Nicholas judged which children were good and which were bad; Moore’s Santa Claus did not. The European Saint Nicholas was a man of stern appearance who passed out switches and lumps of coal as well as presents; Moore’s Santa Claus gave only presents and wished a “happy Christmas to all.” So, in a sense, Moore reduced Saint Nicholas to an ordinary man. The sceptor and bishop’s robes were replaced by ordinary fur. His once stern appearance was replaced with a jolly fellow who had a twinkle in the eye, rosy cheeks, merry dimples, droll mouth, and a chubby, plump figure. In fact, his very appearance makes the narrator of the poem laugh out loud, in spite of himself. Why not — Nicholas was just a peddler opening his pack.
[And the beard on his chin was as white as the snow.] The early bishop Nicholas was a clean shaven young man, thin and tall of stature with dark brown hair and stern appearance. He did not acquire the familiar white hair and beard until his legend merged with that of the Norse god Odin in the 1500’s. Odin would ride through the night skies on a white horse, his long white beard blowing wildly in the wind. Over the years the elements of one legend joined the other.
[The stump of a pipe he held tight in his teeth, And the smoke, it encircled his head like a wreath.] We know Washington Irving for his tales of Rip Van Winkle and The Legend of Sleepy Hollow. But in 1809 he became one of America’s most popular writers with his humorous satire popularly called The Knickerbocker History. In it are more than twenty-six references to Saint Nicholas, including the pipe and the notion that “the smoke from his pipe ascended into the air and spread like a cloud overhead.” Moore and Irving were friends and so it would only be natural that Moore might borrow an image and adapt it to his own needs.
[He was chubby and plump, a right jolly old elf,] As legend has it, Moore’s handyman was of Dutch ancestry; a heavy set little man named Jan (Patrick in other versions) Duyckinck who had a white beard, twinkling eyes, rosy cheeks, smoked a pipe and talked about Christmas in his native Holland. On the morning of Christmas Eve, 1822, Moore helped Jan clear some fresh snow off the paths around the house before leaving by sleigh to travel to Manhattan’s Washington Market and buy the Christmas turkey. Upon his return, Moore supposedly composed his poem, using images drawn from the day’s snowfall, the handyman and the sleigh ride into town. However, late in life Moore told an interviewer that “a portly, rubicund Dutchman” living in the neighborhood of Chelsea was the impetus for the his Saint Nicholas.
[Soon gave me to know I had nothing to dread.] As a member of the gentry, Moore lived a private family-centered life on a large country estate of 500 acres passed down through three generations of his family. A population explosion swelled New York City from 33,000 to over 200,000 in just a few short decades, bringing with it an increase in poverty, vagrancy and homelessness. Moore’s lifestyle was disturbed as part of his family lands in the area of Chelsea were taken from him through eminent domain in order to accommodate the growth of the city. The indulgence, mirth, gambling, drinking, licentious behavior and seasonal unemployment so common to Christmas provided an additional social threat that Moore and his friends did not like. It interrupted the existing social order. In response, Moore’s poem portrayed Saint Nicholas as a non-threatening peddler who gracefully accepted his place and position and kept the Christmas celebration secure inside the household.
[And laying his finger aside of his nose, And giving a nod, up the chimney he rose.] It is Washington Irving who first wrote that Saint Nicholas gave “a very significant look” and, before disappearing from a dream, engaged in “laying a finger beside his nose.” Moore borrowed the images and adapted them to read “a wink of his eye”, “giving a nod” and “laying his finger aside of his nose.”
[Happy Christmas to all and to all a good night.] Moore’s poem is a remarkable blending of religious, historical, literary and sociological tidbits from which he forged a new and vital character. While there may be little that is original, the sum of the whole is a fresh, new gift-giver completely different from that of the European Saint Nicholas. If nothing else, we owe Clement C. Moore a debt of gratitude for having the insight to bring together the many pieces that today make up our American Santa Claus.
by Craig Hosterman