They’re lines instantly familiar to all of us, the beginning strokes of a fabled piece of Yuletide tradition, “The Night Before Christmas” also known as “A Visit from St. Nick”. It’s a work familiar enough to each of us to be parodied, between celebrity readings – here’s Tracy Morgan doing a reading with Jimmy Fallon – and even in the title of the film The Nightmare Before Christmas. It is one of the best known pieces of American poetic verse, readily familiar to a mass audience from childhood. With a tradition of such a variety, I’m always intrigued by the question, “Where did it come from?” – see my Thanksgiving article about where the tradition of the Detroit Lions and the Dallas Cowboys always playing on Turkey Day, but not each other originates.
As it turns out, the 56-line poem is not only a widely-enjoyed Christmas tradition, it is also responsible for a large amount of Christmas imagery, such as eight flying reindeer and our collective vision of the jolly fat man. It first appeared in the Troy, New York Sentinel on December 23, 1823 and for the first 21 years of its existence the poem was published anonymously. It gained fast popularity finding print each year in a wider network of magazines, newspapers and poetry compilations. In 1837, Clement Clarke Moore took authorship credit for the first time, revealing that a family friend had sent the poem to the newspaper on Moore’s behalf without his knowledge.
Images of St. Nick riding a flying sleigh pulled by reindeer, heading down the chimney, his jolly fatness, his pipe and other details that are automatically assigned to our modern holiday icon owe that iconic status to Moore’s poem. Interestingly enough, Moore borrowed his image of St. Nick flying in on his sleigh from friend and fellow writer Washington Irving and his popular 1809 book, A History of New York from the Beginning of the World to the End of the Dutch Dynasty. In this passage Irving, under pseudonym Dietrich Knickerbocker, tells of a dream had by early Dutch settler Olaffe Van Kortlandt wherein St. Nicholas, already associated with riding a horse-drawn sleigh and giving generously to the children of the town, comes flying in on said sleigh, lands and lights his pipe, outlining with his smoke the area to be made into the city of Communipaw. It is but one small (farcical) passage in Irving’s book and when Moore borrows it he adds to it physical traits inspired by a “local Dutch handyman”, seeming not to know that the Dutch Sinterklaas figure was a tall, slender, serious, priest-looking fellow. But it was the jolly, mischievous image of the night-time visitor that quickly spread across New York’s Dutch community and beyond.
One of the biggest contributions from Moore’s poem are Santa’s reindeer. While it might be the first appearance of reindeer at all (instead of horses pulling the sleigh or wagon), it is certainly the birthplace of their names. Well-crafted with alliteration and rhyme, the list contains an odd irregularity worth noting. The seventh and eighth reindeer are named Donder and Blitzen, which translate into “thunder” and “lightning”, a fun fact of its own. But the word “donder” is Dutch while blitzen is German and while the two are both geographically and culturally similar the incongruence is striking, especially given its break in the rhyme pattern with “Vixen” and “Blitzen” being close but not a perfect rhyme. In modern iterations the problem is corrected by turning “Donder” to the German “Donner” but it would seem somewhere along the way, either in Moore’s shallow understanding of Dutch or in the process of publication, that the eighth reindeer received a change in nationality.
In the poem’s second half Moore lends his most defining creative strokes in his detailed description of the “jolly old elf”. Here, for the first time, the figure of St. Nick is envisioned as a stout, rotund man, with a red nose and a twinkle in his eye. His pipe with its billowing smoke encircling his head is taken directly from Washington Irving’s dream description as well as the signal given by St. Nick before he re-ascends the chimney, “placing a finger aside of his nose”. It is/was a signal to indicate something of a secret nature and though a commonplace gesture at the time, its repetition provides one of the most direct links between Irving and Moore’s works.
The Dutch image of Sinterklaas had been an Old World tradition that lay dormant here in the US until the time of the American Revolution when the Sons of St. Nicholas appeared in New York, one of many anti-British groups to appear in the wake of the Boston Tea Party. Over the next 20 years as the English and Dutch fought over and traded control of what would become New York, St. Nicholas would take on the symbol of resistance to British oppression. With Washington Irving’s History of New York we are able to see the saint’s return to popular culture in print, though certainly in a somewhat different form than the European Sinterklass and though Irving’s St. Nicholas figure lends hints of what the icon is to become, it is with Clement Moore’s “A Visit from St. Nick” that we see his transformation into Santa Claus become complete.