‘A Visit from St. Nicholas’ Classic Christmas Poem Deconstructed

First Impressions column by Caspar Ewig

‘A Visit from St. Nicholas’ Classic
Christmas Poem Deconstructed

Pamela McColl explores the art and history of Clement Clark Moore’s classic Christmas poem in her new book. (Photo courtesy warnerlibrary.org)

COOPERSTOWN – On Tuesday, November 29, author Pamela McColl presented at Fenimore Art Museum on the insights and experiences she had gained in the 10 years it took to research and write her volume, “Twas the Night—The Art and History Behind the Classic Christmas Poem.” The lecture was particularly relevant this year, since it is the bicentennial of the poem’s first reading and since part of the imagery contained in it parallels imagery James Fenimore Cooper incorporated into his work, “The Pioneers,” published about the same time.

According to the history as recounted by McColl, this iconic poem was written by Clement Clark Moore and read to children on Christmas Eve in 1822, without the intent of being published. But through a series of transfers of copies of the tale, the narrative wound up in the hands of the “Troy Sentinel,” which published it anonymously in 1823 under the title, “A Visit from St Nicholas.” From that date forward, the poem’s popularity exploded to the extent that there are literally thousands of different editions and different images arising from the story, some of which are valuable collectors’ items.

McColl pointed to the origins of some of the imagery that existed prior to and concurrent with the publication of the poem, including those of Washington Irving, that most probably influenced Moore’s telling of the story. Similarly, she detailed the lasting effects which the poem has had on future depictions of Santa Claus by artists such as Thomas Nast and Norman Rockwell.

This thoroughly delightful Christmas story was created around the jovial St. Nicolas, who only spread cheer and presents without any hint of punishment for misbehavior. It also firmly established the image of a St. Nick arriving on the eve before Christmas in a sleigh filled with gifts and pulled by eight reindeer with names like Donner and Blitzen. It established the chimney as the entry door. Over the years, St. Nick morphed into Santa Clause and the name of the story changed from “A Visit from St. Nicholas” to the present “Twas the Night Before Christmas.”

However, this simple children’s tale is not without its controversies. First and foremost is the issue of whether Moore actually wrote it, because—when the “Troy Sentinel” first printed the story—it was published anonymously and without any reference to George Clement Moore. However, McColl traces the transmittal of the document that ultimately ended up in the editor’s hands as coming from persons who were personally connected to Moore. Furthermore, when authorship was first disputed, Moore publicly stated that he wrote it and no contemporaneous statement appears to the contrary.

Because the poem’s first publication was anonymous, subsequent writers took liberties and made changes to the language as they saw fit, such as changing the names of the reindeer. And the last line change from “Happy Christmas” to “Merry Christmas” has been generally adopted in subsequent editions. In the meantime, the poem has long been in the public domain and writers have adapted the script to incorporate teddy bears, Winnie the Pooh and other characters. It has even been used by advertisers to promote their products.

McColl herself made a change in 2012 that landed her in hot water. After reading about a study that disclosed that the biggest Christmas wish of many children was that their parents would quit smoking for good, McColl published (and still publishes) an edition eliminating the two lines referring to Santa smoking and having a pipe. The publication caused a short-term uproar that was captured on the major news networks, some of which castigated McColl as the destroyer of a beloved Christmas story.

However, in response to this writer’s question, McColl assured us that despite the emphases on dieting, Santa would retain his “bowl full of jelly” belly.

Editor’s note: Do you have a second impression on this topic, or a first impression of your own on a performance, book, movie or something else? Send your thoughts to info@allotsego.com.

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