December 23, 2016

A Visit from St. Nicholas

        Arguably the best-known fantasy poem in the English language is “A Visit from St. Nicholas,” aka “’Twas the Night Before Christmas.”  Perhaps the most interesting thing about it is the way it’s spread and shifted since its first publication in 1823.  For example, some editors have bowdlerized the line “the breast of the new-fallen snow,” and others have changed “ere he drove out of sight” to “as he drove out of sight,” thinking “ere” too archaic.  In my opinion, such editors are seriously insulting readers of all ages.  Children are perfectly capable of taking the occasional unfamiliar word in stride, just as they can take the “sugar plums” and the “laying his finger aside of his nose,” both of which were unfamiliar concepts to me as a kid.  The names of the reindeer have also shifted, from an originally Dutch version (Dunder and Blixem) to, more commonly, the German version (Donner and Blitzen).  I don’t know why that is.
        Clement Clark Moore’s image of St. Nicholas was enormously influential, along with Thomas Nast’s illustrations.  (That’s if indeed we assume the poem was written by Moore.  There is a certain amount of controversy over that, although apparently the balance of expert opinion tips toward Moore.)  The plump “right jolly old elf” with the white beard and the pipe are now the invariable image of Santa Claus, but there were many possible versions in the first half nineteenth century.  The one thing that I think hasn’t stuck about Moore’s version is the size.  We see “a miniature sleigh and eight tiny rein-deer, with a little old driver.”  As a child I took this to mean that St. Nick was actually much smaller than a normal adult.  Then it occurred to me that perhaps this was perspective and they looked small because they were distant.  But then I shifted my interpretation back again: we hear “the prancing and pawing of each little hoof,” and of course he was able to bound down the chimney which, in a chubby man, certainly implies general smallness.
        Finally, it’s worth noting that St. Nick’s job here is just to fill the stockings.  There’s no Christmas tree mentioned in this house, and Santa Claus isn’t delivering a ton of large consumer goods.  We’ve had serious gift inflation in almost two centuries.  Not that I’m complaining - I love a treeful of gifts for all - but it’s worth noting that originally we were expecting a few little treats, not dozens of Nintendos!
        And finally, let’s give a special mention to some of the best fantasy elements of the poem.  There’s the miniature aspect, of course, and there’s the flying reindeer and sleigh.  There’s the rising up the chimney, which sounds much more magical to me than the bounding down.  And my favorite line of all, “Away they all flew like the down of a thistle.”
        And so I’ll close, like St Nicholas, “Happy Christmas to all, and to all a good night!”  But I’ll also add, “Happy Channukuh,” and “Happy any other holidays you may be celebrating!”
        (You can refresh your memory of the entire poem here.)

[Picture: Illustration by anonymous artist from Christmas Rhymes and Stories by Clement Clark Moore, 1884 (Image from Reusable Art).]

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