Santa Claus is Comin’ to Town

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Merry Old Santa Claus,” from the January 1, 1881, edition of Harper’s Weekly, illustrates Moore’s portrait of “the jolly old elf.

Among our many treasured holiday traditions, few are of longer standing than the recitation of “A Visit from St. Nicholas” by Clement Clarke Moore (1779-1863). When he wrote his ingenious poem in 1823 to amuse his children, he didn’t know he was creating a classic of popular culture that would last for more than two centuries. In fact, as a scholar and professor of Oriental and Greek literature at the General Theological Seminary in New York City, he was too embarrassed by its lowbrow whimsy even to admit authorship.

The poem was first published anonymously in the Troy, NY, Sentinel on December 23, 1823, reportedly by a houseguest who had secretly copied it. Only after its burgeoning popularity did Moore publish it under his own name in 1837. As with many classics, authorship is controversial: descendants of Henry Livingston, Jr. claim that he is the true author, but this has never been proven. Whoever the author, after 50 years of yearly repetition, I can recite most of this beloved poem from memory—and you probably can, too! It has been endlessly reprinted and illustrated, and generated myriad radio, television, film, theatre, and musical adaptations.

Also known as “The Night Before Christmas,” this is among the most popular poems in English and is largely responsible for establishing the modern American myth of Santa Claus. Moore originated many of the features that are still associated with the gift giver today. Moore’s Saint Nick—with his fur suit, white beard, “chubby and plump” physique, sleigh full of toys, and bag slung over his back—became the standard vision of Santa Claus from that time forward. His most notable feature is his face—with its merry dimples, red cheeks, and twinkling eyes, and smiling mouth that radiate love and good will. His smiling mouth was “drawn up like a bow”—not a ribbon bow, but a bow-and-arrow crescent shape (l. 39). We laugh with the poem’s speaker at this endearing portrait. Like the historic St. Nicholas, he is generous and devoted to spreading happiness by filling children’s stockings with surprises. “The poem became an enduring part of Christmas tradition, and because of its wide popularity, both Nicholas, the patron saint of Christmas, and the mythic American Santa Claus were permanently linked with the holiday,” according to Merriam Webster’s Encyclopedia of Literature.

With his opening lines, the poet sets a scene of safety, peace, and contentment. The poem begins—with its famous “’twas the night before Christmas,” a now archaic contraction of “it was”—in hushed tones on a quiet Christmas Eve as the family is sound asleep, the children dreaming of the next day’s treats and the speaker having “settled his brain” for the night—kept warm, before the advent of central heating, by a nightcap (this line is often edited to read “settled down” instead). But this soporific scene is soon interrupted by shouts of “dash away all!” and the noisy clattering of a sleigh as St. Nick and his “coursers”—that is, reindeer or horses—land on the lawn. In some of the most beautiful lines in the poem, the speaker looks out the window as “The moon on the breast of the new-fallen snow/Gave the lustre of mid-day to objects below” (lines 13-14). This stunning image of bright moonlight reflected off the fresh blanket of snow to light the scene allows the speaker to witness the whole equipage rising into the air as if tossed by the wind. “As leaves that before the wild hurricane fly/When they meet with an obstacle, mount to the sky; /So up to the house-top the coursers they flew/With the sleigh full of toys, and Saint Nicholas too” (l. 25-28). This elaborate simile (as __, so __) reminds me of Homer! Watching in amazement, he next hears the pounding of reindeer hooves—on, of all places, the roof. 

The speaker’s investigations lead him to an encounter with a magical visitor who commands flying reindeer and can slip both up and down the chimney. This surprise guest is not the pious Saint Nicholas of legend, but the comic and jolly Saint Nick, transformed through poetry into the laughing, joyful gift giver we know today. The speaker’s initial fear evaporates as the sight of this character “Soon gave me to know I had nothing to dread” (l. 48), restoring the harmony of the opening scene. The poem is written in a rollicking anapestic tetrameter (four feet of two unstressed plus one stressed syllable, e.g. da da DA), a relatively uncommon meter that was used by Byron in his “Destruction of the Sennacherib” (1815) to evoke the galloping of horses’ hooves—or in this case, reindeer’s. Moore writes in rhyming couplets, an easy-to-remember pattern ideal for children. It is a ballad, i.e. a poem that tells a story, and uses humor and vivid language—such as “nestled,” “clatter,” and “prancing”— to paint memorable word pictures. Another charming simile occurs near the end with “Away they all flew like the down of a thistle” (l. 54). These comparisons add a feeling of ethereal lightness and magic to the scene. 

Moore based his personification of the Christmas spirit on the Christian legend of Saint Nicholas (c. 270-343), the 4th century bishop of Myra in ancient Greece who is reputed to have rescued three girls from prostitution by dropping a sack of gold coins through the window of their house each night for three nights so their father could pay their dowries. This reputation for secret gift giving, along with his many other miracles, made St. Nicholas a favorite subject for medieval artists and liturgical plays. In Holland he was known as Sinterklaas, and in the 17th century, Dutch colonists brought this tradition with them to New Amsterdam (now New York City).

Moore’s portrait, and knowledge of Dutch traditions, was in part borrowed from his friend Washington Irving (1783-1859), author of Rip Van Winkle and The Legend of Sleepy Hollow. In A History of New York (1809), Irving wrote “and when St. Nicholas had smoked his pipe, he twisted it in his hatband, and laying his finger beside his nose, gave the astonished Van Kortlandt a very significant look; then, mounting his wagon, he returned over the tree-tops and disappeared.”

Sinterklaas was embraced by Americans under the name Santa Claus, and the legend of a kindly old man was united with Nordic folktales of a magician who punished naughty children and rewarded good ones with presents. The modern image of Santa Claus crystallized in the early 19th century with the publication of Moore’s poem, and he has ever since remained the patron of our gift-giving festival. In the United Kingdom, he is known as Father Christmas. 

One aspect of Moore’s portrait of Santa Claus—which would help explain how he could fit down the chimney!—has not lasted through time: his size. Moore’s “right jolly old elf” is small, described as “a little old driver” who drives “a miniature sleigh, and eight tiny reindeer” (l. 16-17). Our modern version of Santa has morphed into a full-sized man, usually rather tall and big-boned to support that “round belly/that shook when he laughed, like a bowlful of jelly.”

The first reference to Santa’s sleigh being pulled by a reindeer appears in “Old Santeclaus with Much Delight,” an illustrated children’s poem published anonymously in New York in 1821. Moore increased this number to eight and invented the colorful, alliterative names— the most unique of which, Donner and Blitzen, are derived from the Dutch words Dunder and Blixen, meaning thunder and lightning. Rudolph wasn’t introduced until much later, in a department store pamphlet created in 1938 by Robert May. May’s brother, Johnny Marks, wrote the song that was recorded by Gene Autrey in 1949—bringing the standard number of sleigh pullers to nine. 

Moore’s delightful, heartfelt poem unites magic and love, convincing us to believe in both. The Santa Claus he envisioned is the personification of kindness and selfless altruism. The poem creates the feeling that all is right with the world and always will be—a reminder we need now more than ever. Happy Christmas to all, especially to you and yours!

A Visit from St. Nicholas
by Clement Clarke Moore

‘Twas the night before Christmas, when all through the house
Not a creature was stirring, not even a mouse;
The stockings were hung by the chimney with care,
In hopes that St. Nicholas soon would be there;
The children were nestled all snug in their beds,
While visions of sugar-plums danced in their heads;
And mamma in her ’kerchief, and I in my cap,
Had just settled our brains for a long winter’s nap,
When out on the lawn there arose such a clatter,
I sprang from the bed to see what was the matter.
Away to the window I flew like a flash,
Tore open the shutters and threw up the sash.
The moon on the breast of the new-fallen snow
Gave the lustre of mid-day to objects below,
When, what to my wondering eyes should appear,
But a miniature sleigh, and eight tiny reindeer,
With a little old driver, so lively and quick,
I knew in a moment it must be St. Nick.
More rapid than eagles his coursers they came,
And he whistled, and shouted, and called them by name;
“Now, Dasher! now, Dancer! now, Prancer and Vixen!
On, Comet! on, Cupid! on, Donder and Blitzen!
To the top of the porch! to the top of the wall!
Now dash away! dash away! dash away all!”
As dry leaves that before the wild hurricane fly,
When they meet with an obstacle, mount to the sky;
So up to the house-top the coursers they flew,
With the sleigh full of toys, and St. Nicholas too.
And then, in a twinkling, I heard on the roof
The prancing and pawing of each little hoof.
As I drew in my head, and was turning around,
Down the chimney St. Nicholas came with a bound.
He was dressed all in fur, from his head to his foot,
And his clothes were all tarnished with ashes and soot;
A bundle of toys he had flung on his back,
And he looked like a peddler just opening his pack.
His eyes—how they twinkled! his dimples how merry!
His cheeks were like roses, his nose like a cherry!
His droll little mouth was drawn up like a bow
And the beard of his chin was as white as the snow;
The stump of a pipe he held tight in his teeth,
And the smoke it encircled his head like a wreath;
He had a broad face and a little round belly,
That shook when he laughed, like a bowlful of jelly.
He was chubby and plump, a right jolly old elf,
And I laughed when I saw him, in spite of myself;
A wink of his eye and a twist of his head,
Soon gave me to know I had nothing to dread;
He spoke not a word, but went straight to his work,
And filled all the stockings; then turned with a jerk,
And laying his finger aside of his nose,
And giving a nod, up the chimney he rose;
He sprang to his sleigh, to his team gave a whistle,
And away they all flew like the down of a thistle,
But I heard him exclaim, ere he drove out of sight,
“Happy Christmas to all, and to all a good-night.”

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