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Monday, December 25, 2023

December 25, 2023: Christmas Stories: “A Visit from St. Nicholas”

[This December we commemorate the 200th anniversary of Clement Clarke Moore’s “A Visit from St. Nicholas” (well, maybe we do—see Monday’s post!). That was one of many Christmas stories I read to my sons when they were young, so this week I’ll AmericanStudy it and four other such holiday classics!]

On an important AmericanStudies takeaway from the controversy over the classic Christmas poem’s authorship.

To be clear, and so you don’t think I was the most obnoxiously academic Dad ever, I didn’t include thorny authorship debates when I shared “A Visit from St. Nicholas” with the boys. We focused on all the elements that have made this poem such an enduring hit since its 1823 publication: the legendary opening line that has eventually given the poem its new title “’Twas the Night Before Christmas”; the rhyming couplets and rhythm that move reader and audience alike through the rest of the poem’s structure after that opening; the naming of the reindeer which has become such an iconic part of the Santa Claus mythos (as have other aspects of this poem to be sure). And at the risk of getting on the naughty list, I’ll note that the boys’ favorite moment was an invented one I stole from my own Dad’s reading of the poem to me: revising the second line in the couplet “And laying a finger aside of his nose,/And giving a nod, up the chimney he rose;” to “He pulled out a booger as long as a hose.” What can I say, boys will be boys, at all ages.

So like generations have before us, my sons and I greatly enjoyed our own annual rendition of “Visit.” But from its very first appearance, as the anonymously authored poem “Account of a Visit from St. Nicholas” published in the Troy, New York Sentinel on December 23rd, 1823, the question of who created those iconic lines has been an uncertain one. It remained publicly anonymous for 14 years, until the professor and author Clement Clarke Moore claimed authorship in 1837; Moore subsequently included “Visit” in an 1844 collection of his poetry. But over the centuries an alternate theory has emerged: that fellow New Yorker (and distant relative of Moore’s by marriage) Henry Livingston Jr. was the author of the original poem. As you might expect for a work as enduring and popular as this poem, a small cottage industry has developed among scholars making the case for one or the other of these men as the first author, and I’m not going to pretend to be able to weigh in with the knowledge nor the authority that those folks have brought to their works.

Whoever penned that December 1823 poem, however, it’s important to note that it appeared anonymously in a daily newspaper, and not even one in a major city and literary hub like Boston (or, increasingly in that era, New York, where both Moore and Livingston spent their lives, literary and otherwise). Poetry in early 19th century America was a profoundly public and communal enterprise, not quite akin to the oral traditions of Homer and his ilk but certainly not yet consistently the domain of iconic individual authors that it would become and largely remains (although the first American professional poets were just beginning to ply their trade in this period). That collective tradition could be found in most every American community, and was most commonly shared in mass media like newspapers. It was thus far from abnormal for a poem to appear without a named author, although of course it’s particularly apt that that was the case for this specific poem, which so fully established some of the collective images and narratives around Santa Claus and Christmas that have endured for the two centuries since. To all a good night indeed.

Next Christmas story tomorrow,


PS. What do you think? Christmas or holiday readings you’d share?

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