The Poems (We Think) We Know: “The Night Before Christmas”




The Poems (We Think) We Know: “The Night Before Christmas” by Alexandra Socarides

More than a feel-good fantasy of holiday giving

December 24th, 2013 reset - +

For Nate 

 I.

I SHOULD START by saying that I don’t mean to ruin anyone’s Christmas. I like Christmas as much as the next person, and I’ve got two little boys who like it even more. We put up a tree (a real one, the kind that smells like Christmas), keep apple cider warm on the stove top for days, and lay out cookies and milk for Santa. I still use the stocking from my childhood (yes, in my house grown ups get presents in their stockings, too) and although I’ve never been a practicing Christian, I still remember fondly the year I was cast as Mary in the local nativity play. (I rode a real donkey down the aisle!) So it’s not my intention to take anything away from the holiday, or from our memories of it. In fact, having kids has allowed me to indulge in the holiday all over again, and now I live inside Christmas for far longer, existing on the momentum, and the aftermath, of their excitement.

This year, my 6-year-old started really early with the anticipation. As soon as Halloween was over, this child with the biggest sweet tooth ever declared that Halloween was no longer his favorite holiday; now it is Christmas, because there is Santa Claus. And so, almost two months before Santa Claus would make his way down our Missouri chimney, Nate asked me to read him “’Twas the Night Before Christmas.” Every night.

I don’t know why it had never occurred to me to think about the author of this poem, about when it was written, about how it came to be. I think I had always assumed it was a British poem (something about the “kerchief” and the “cap”?) and it seemed kind of timeless to me; I couldn’t have guessed if it was an 18th-,  19th-, or 20th-century poem. Also, it was a book, not really a poem, in my head, even though I knew it was filled with all those galloping anapests. I had owned it in “pop-up” form when I was a child, and those moveable illustrations were as much a part of its story as anything else. So when I turned my attention to this poem, which was written by Clement C. Moore in 1822 in New York City and was originally titled “A Visit from St. Nicholas,” I was shocked by all the stories embedded within it that I had never known — stories about slavery, about Ninth Avenue, about Washington Irving and Thomas Jefferson, about long pipes and short pipes.

II.

The story goes something like this: right around Christmas time in 1822, Clement Moore went out in a carriage to buy presents for his family. His wife, Catherine, and his six children (all between the ages of 8 months and 7 years old) waited for him to return so that they could carve the turkey and celebrate the holiday together. Before he left on his shopping expedition, his 6- year-old daughter, Charity, asked him to write “something special” for Christmas and so, with the snow starting to fall and the carriage loaded up with presents, Moore wrote “A Visit from St. Nicholas,” a long poem that he would read to his family later that evening and that, according to legend, they absolutely loved.

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It was not until the following Christmastime that the poem was printed, so for a whole year those lines were the private property of the Moore family. Then one day Charity showed the poem to Harriet Butler, who was a friend of Moore’s and the daughter of the Reverend David Butler of St. Paul’s Episcopal Church in Troy, New York. Harriet Butler made a copy and sent it to Orville L. Holley, the editor of the Troy Sentinel, with no author’s name attached. And that is how it came to be printed on December 23, 1823, in the Troy Sentinel. Moore’s name would not be associated with the poem until 1837, when his friend, the editor Charles Fenno Hoffman, printed it in the New York Book of Poetry. Moore eventually printed it himself in his first and only book of poems, which wasn’t published until 1844, over two decades after its original printing.

In many ways this is a typical story of 19th-century verse composition and circulation. Poems were often published anonymously, and often this anonymity gave rise to much-desired readerly speculation and rumor. (There are some, I should say, who will still make the case that Moore was not the author of this poem, but that’s another story entirely and not the one I am going to tell here.) But why did this particular version of Santa Claus’s Christmas Eve visitation get more attention than others, since others were circulating at the time? And why was Moore so slow to deny authorship of it? What lies behind the myth of Moore’s now almost two-century-old composition of this poem for his daughter?

It’s hard to read the poem as anything other than a utopian, feel-good fantasy of holiday giving and magical surprise, written, as the story above tells us, by a father for the entertainment of his family. If you like, go ahead and read them that way one last time, before I complicate the situation:

’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.”

The poem seems straight forward enough: in 28 rhyming couplets of anapestic tetrameter, it tells the story of Santa Claus’s Christmas Eve visit to one particular family’s home. Because the man of the house hears Santa’s approach, he gets to observe his arrival, reindeer, attire, manner, actions, and departure. Each of these elements of the narrative is given significant attention and the poem nicely renders the whole incident as both real and magical. It is just detailed enough to be easy to render visually (the first illustrated edition was published in 1848 and since then there have been hundreds, if not thousands; the first film version appeared as early as 1905) and just suggestive enough of other worlds to have made its way into generations of children’s imaginations. In short, it was, and continues to be, the perfect Christmas poem for a nation that values quasi-historical myths, the home as a place of warmth and safety, and unanticipated acts of benevolence.

And what’s interesting is that Moore is really the person who brought all of this to bear on Christmas. Granted, he had multiple sources off which to build when creating his version of Christmastime and Santa Claus — some details came from the Dutch version, some from religious documents, some from Norse legend, and some from his friend (and fellow New Yorker) Washington Irving’s 1809 A History of New York. Irving as source text is probably the most potent, given that Irving’s book (which, ironically, is a send up of the very Dutch customs that Moore seems to be drawing on) at times feels a little too close for comfort. For instance, of that moment right before Santa’s departure, Irving writes, “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.” Regardless, Moore’s rendering of Santa’s particular appearance, the number and specific names of his reindeer, the bringing of gifts to children, his mode of transport, and his arrival on Christmas Eve are all now well-known elements of the story of Santa Claus that didn’t exist in the form we know them today before Moore’s poem. (It’s also worth noting that certain details have morphed away from Moore’s poem, such as Santa’s now-large stature — in this poem he is an elf himself! — and the idea that Santa and his reindeer ride in through the sky, where here they clearly are land-based creatures that fly up to the roof.) Because Moore was a highly educated man, he would have been completely capable of faithfully rendering the Dutch story of Sinterklaas if that had been his point. But it wasn’t. Moore was creating an American Santa Claus for his American people, and it’s only from our historical distance that we think of Moore’s version of the story as either wholly derivative or original.

III.

I’m not normally one to think that we should care too much about how an artist chooses to live his or her life, or about what that artist chooses to believe. If we based our assessments of art on those things, I think we all know we would never have the pleasure of looking at another Picasso painting or of reading another poem by Ezra Pound again. So I’m not saying that, just because Clement Moore had what I consider to be abhorrent politics, we shouldn’t read this poem to a whole new generation of Santa Claus–crazy children. What I am saying is that once you know about them, it’s hard not to see them all over the poem.

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Moore was what today we would call part of the 1 percent. What that means circa 1822 in New York City is that he owned a huge amount of ancestral land (in what today is the neighborhood of Chelsea) and was inordinately wealthy because of it. Because he was an academic (his primary post was as American Professor of Oriental and Greek Literature as well as Divinity and Biblical Learning at the General Theological Seminary of the Protestant Episcopal Church), we might assume he used all that money and power to do good things for the people of New York. But no. Moore was incredibly disdainful (and, I would argue, fearful) of the lower classes and of any form of social good or charity that was meant to make their lives better. And he held slaves. The historical record shows that, in 1822, when he wrote “A Visit from St. Nicholas,” Moore owned five slaves. What’s interesting about this data is not that he ever owned them (lots of people, including Thomas Jefferson, of whom, interestingly, Moore was a rabid critic, owned slaves), but that he owned them so late. In 1799, New York had passed a gradual emancipation act that freed all children born into slavery and that ensured freedom for all slaves by 1827. Moore held onto his slaves until the bitter end and was an outspoken opponent of abolition until his death in 1863.

Are slaves in “’Twas the Night Before Christmas”? No, but the poem is drenched in Moore’s sense of the hierarchies of race and class. The first eight lines of the poem describe the domestic scene of evening, with everyone settling into their beds for the night, when all of a sudden the first action of the poem occurs: “When out on the lawn there arose such a clatter, / I sprang from the bed to see what was the matter.” Any history of Christmas — and I suggest Stephen Nissenbaum’s excellent one, The Battle for Christmas: A Social and Cultural History of Christmas that Shows How It Was Transformed from an Unruly Carnival Season into the Quintessential American Family Holiday — will tell you that the ways in which people celebrated Christmas in the early 19th century was a highly controversial topic. Some people treated it as a sacred holiday to be celebrated in church and then in privacy, with family; others thought of it as a type of Carnival, taking the opportunity to get drunk and party in the streets with strangers. In light of this, the “clatter” that is heard on the lawn might not be read as Santa Claus, but instead as evidence of the working people’s Bacchanalian revelries. What the man in the poem thinks is the “matter” — in other words, what the threat is to this scene of domestic tranquility — is drunk, poor people. But instead of seeing them, his “wondering eyes” (and here is where the poem shifts from realism to fantasy) land on “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.” Instead of the threatening men of the street, he is met with the man of Dutch legend. And in one fell swoop, Moore imagines a world in which the problems of class with which he is surrounded daily are transformed into something magical and good.

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Twelve years before Moore wrote this poem, the landscape and demographics of New York City had begun to shift in ways that would affect him personally. The city had begun implementing a plan to make a grid system of streets up in the neighborhood in which Moore resided. In particular, the plan would make what would become Ninth Avenue run straight through his estate. Moore was incensed, and wrote a pamphlet entitled “Proprietors of Real Estate,” which, among other things, protested paying taxes for the upkeep of new streets and more generally opposed the development of the city because, he felt, development was meant to appease the working class and, by extension, such acts were a sign that the city was being run by and for its laborers. But then, in 1818, Ninth Avenue was dug straight through his estate.

By the time Moore wrote his Christmastime poem, then, he was not living in a pastoral wonderland, and he was mighty pissed off about this. How does this manifest in his poem? Moore paints Santa, in no uncertain terms, as the very kind of person — a dirty peddler! — whom he wouldn’t want in his own house. Between the clothes that are “all tarnished with ashes and soot,” the “pack” on his back, and the “stump of a pipe” in his mouth, Santa is marked multiple times as working class,

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The pipe is a particularly interesting marker given that in 1820s in American cities, it was so accepted that the rich smoked long pipes and the poor smoked short pipes that upon purchasing a long pipe, those of the lower classes would often cut them down. We only learn late in the scene that the man who is observing Santa Claus is quite wary of him. It is not until Santa produces “a wink of his eye and a twist of his head” that the onlooker realizes he has “nothing to dread.” The implication is, of course, that under normal circumstances, having a working man intrude upon your house would be cause for concern.

In order to counterbalance the fact that he has rendered Santa as a peddler who has just entered the house uninvited, Moore uses playful and positive similes to describe him. Santa’s cheeks are “like roses,” his nose “like a cherry.” The hair on his chin is “as white as the snow” and the smoke coming out of his mouth is “like a wreath.” His round belly is “like a bowl full of jelly.” All of these comparisons are to beautiful, delicious, or festive images, and in this way the peddler, although still quite dirty (and, by extension, dark), is transformed. Might we read this, then, as Moore’s single act of generosity to the class that he actively oppressed? By making Santa Claus one of them might he have been valuing the peddler anew? Maybe, but I doubt it. These descriptions of Santa are manipulative in the same way that depictions of happy slaves from the same period are meant not to compliment blacks but to appease the guilt of those who were oppressing them. When Moore writes that Santa “spoke not a word, but went straight to his work,” I think what we can see most clearly is Moore’s fantasy of the silent underclass that should work hard, provide goods and services for others, and not ask for anything in exchange.

IV.

My son Nate is the same age now that Charity was when she asked her father to write “something special” for the Christmas holidays. Six year olds know how to make excellent requests. For Charity, it must have been quite something to make such a request and have this poem produced within a matter of hours for her enjoyment. And because Moore did not claim authorship of the poem for so long (there is lots of speculation that his elitism kept him from wanting to be associated with popular, children’s verse of the time), there must have been something very special about watching this poem go viral (for lack of a better phrase), and knowing that it had been privately written just for you.

Despite all the internal politics that I hope to have elucidated here, I do find myself liking the fact that this is a poem about New York because that’s the city of my own childhood. Identification is a funny thing. Even though I am skeptical of the legend that turns Moore himself into a kind of Santa Claus figure (in his carriage with all those presents for his kids!), and I am quick to complicate what others might read as his positive depiction of Santa the lower-class jolly peddler, I am happy to embrace the idea that the streets and parks of my girlhood (Clement Clarke Moore Park is on 22nd Street and 10th Avenue) somehow played a role in where our modern American sense of Christmas comes from. If the people of that dirty, industrial, ever-developing city hadn’t thought to build the streets and avenues the way it did, Moore’s sense of authority may never have been called into question, and that filthy man who so many children now dream about might never have come down the chimney.

¤

Alexandra Socarides' first book, Dickinson Unbound: Paper, Process, Poetics, was published by Oxford University Press in June 2012.

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