A Visit from St. Nicholas (Santa Claus)
Charles Dickens’s story A Christmas Carol shaped our modern understanding and celebration of Christmas. This endearing tale, first published in 1843 with such characters as Ebenezer Scrooge, Tiny Tim, Christmas ghosts, and its message of love, redemption and generosity, teaches us some of the meaning of “the spirit of the season.”
However, another literary work, published twenty years before A Christmas Carol, contributed as much if not more to our conception of Christmas. The poem “Account of a Visit from St. Nicholas” was published anonymously by the Troy (New York) newspaper Sentinel on Dec. 23, 1823. Here we find the elements many children know so well: St. Nick (Santa Claus) carrying toys in a sleigh pulled by flying reindeer, coming down the chimney to fill the stockings, being jolly and plump, and spreading good cheer.
Though Clement Clarke Moore later claimed authorship of the poem, some scholars say it was actually written by Henry Livingston, Jr., who died in 1828 before Moore claimed authorship in 1844. Both men had connections to Dutch culture. For example, the names for the reindeer “Thunder and Lightning” in the original version of the poem are “Dunder and Blixem”—Dutch words—instead of the German names “Donner and Blitzen” more familiar to modern readers.
Whichever man wrote the poem, he left an eternal Christmas legacy. Eight days after its original publication, the New York Spectator (New York, New York) reprinted the poem on the front page of its Jan. 1, 1824, issue:
(From the Troy Sentinel)
We know not to whom we are indebted for the following description of that unwearied patron of children—that homely, but delightful personification of parental kindness, Sainte Claus, his costume and his equipage, as he goes about visiting the firesides of this happy land, laden with Christmas bounties; but, from whomsoever it may have come, we give thanks for it. There is, to our apprehension, a spirit of cordial goodness in it, a playfulness of fancy, and a benevolent alacrity to enter into the feelings and promote the simple pleasures of children, which are altogether charming. We hope our little patrons, both lads and lasses, will accept it as proof of our unfeigned goodwill towards them—as a token of our warmest wish that they may have many a merry Christmas; that they may long retain their beautiful relish for those unbought, homebred joys, which derive their flavor from filial piety and fraternal love, and which they may be assured are the least alloyed that time can furnish them; and that they may never part with that simplicity of character, which is their own fairest ornament, and for the sake of which they have been pronounced, by authority which none can gainsay, the types of such as shall inherit the Kingdom of Heaven.
Account of a Visit from St. Nicholas
’Twas the night before Christmas, when all thro’ 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 danc’d in their heads,
And Mama 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 sprung 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 rein-deer;
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 call’d them by name:
"Now! Dasher, now! Dancer, now! Prancer and Vixen,
“On! Comet, on! Cupid, on! Dunder and Blixem;
“To the top of the porch! to the top of the wall!
“Now dash away! dash away! dash away all!"
As dry leaves 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 dress’d all in fur, from his head to his foot,
And his clothes were all tarnish’d with ashes and soot;
A bundle of toys was flung on his back,
And he look’d like a pedlar 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 fill’d all the stockings, then turn’d with a jerk,
And laying his finger aside of his nose,
And giving a nod, up the chimney he rose.
He sprung 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.”