Thursday, December 17, 2015

A Visit from St. Nicholas

by Frank Boles

The first “stand-alone” publication of “The Night Before Christmas” is found in the Clarke Historical Library. Clement Moore’s “A Visit from St. Nicholas” was written as a gift for his children in 1822. It eventually became one of the best known poems ever written in the United States. Moore considered it a frivolous piece, but in 1823 a friend submitted it (without Moore’s permission) to a local newspaper, which published it anonymously. Many years later, Moore claimed credit for the work, although some scholars dispute this claim. Regardless of who wrote it, the first independent publication of the widely read poem occurred in 1848, a copy of which is in the Clark Historical Library.

The poem’s frivolity was almost unique for its time. Children’s literature of the day was designed to instill Christian values or educate children about the world. Although a certain amount of amusement was grudgingly allowed in such publications in order to keep children focused on their lessons, fun was clearly not the goal. Childhood was about learning and learning was not required to be fun.

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Moore’s poem about good cheer and gift giving was simply meant to amuse. The poem likely drew on several existing sources in portraying “the jolly old elf,” but Moore’s vision of Santa Claus came to define the figure in the nineteenth century. Today, it continues to be who children everywhere expect to arrive at Thanksgiving day parades across America. Moore not only told us what St. Nick looked like, he also correctly assigned to St. Nick his unique mode of transportation, the flying sleigh and shared with children the names of the eight reindeer, Dasher, Dancer, Prancer, Vixen, Comet, Cupid, Donder (not Donner), and Blitzen.

For the curious, Donder was renamed Donner in 1939, when Robert L. May published his revisionist account of the North Pole holiday transit system, Rudolph the Red Nosed Reindeer. Reindeer scholars are welcome to visit the Clarke, where they can also read May’s classic and decide for themselves whether the reindeer’s name is Donder, as Moore stated, or Donner, as claimed by May.

Whichever reindeer name you decide upon, and however you choose to celebrate the end-of-year holidays, the Clarke Historical Library staff wishes you good cheer and a delightful time of sharing.