Last night’s bedtime story was our annual reading of Clement Clarke Moore’s poem “A Visit from St. Nicholas.” Our favorite edition these days is the wonderful pop-up version created by Robert Sabuda and titled The Night Before Christmas Pop-up.
‘Twas the night before Christmas, when all through the house
Not a creature was stirring, not even a mouse;
The stockings were laid on the table with care,
In hopes that St. Nicholas soon would be there;
The children were nestled all snug in their beds,
While visions of Bakugan rolled in their heads;
And my wife with her laptop, and I with a pen,
Were settling in for the finale of Mad Men . . .
My older son is just on the verge of no longer believing in Santa. He tells me that more than half his classmates think “it’s just your parents.” By an act of sheer willpower, he’s chosen to believe for another year.
St. Nicholas wasn’t always associated with Christmas. In fact, he was brought to America by John Pintard, who had founded the New-York Historical Society in 1804. Pintard sought to make St. Nicholas the patron saint of New York City and the symbol of the Historical Society, which voted in 1809 to name the saint — in Dutch, Sancte Claus — the patron of New Amsterdam, retroactively.
The transformation of St. Nicholas into Santa Claus was helped along by
Washington Irving, who published his comic Knickerbocker’s History of New
York — in part a response to the Historical Society’s call for archival information — on St. Nicholas’ Day in 1809. The book contained numerous
references to St. Nicholas, depicted as Dutch burgher, a trickster with
pipe. St. Nicholas’ Day was traditionally celebrated on December 6.
The following year the Society sponsored the publication of a broadside (funded by Pintard) that featured a bilingual (Dutch/English) poem that began: “Sancte Claus goed heylig man” (“Saint Nicholas good holy man”). It was accompanied by an illustration that showed Santa Claus bringing gifts to children on St. Nicholas’ Day.
It was, however, Moore’s poem, published in 1823, that
completed the transformation of St. Nicholas into the jolly red-suited
figure who brings gifts on Christmas Eve. Moore was a friend of Pintard’s and an arch-conservative who opposed the abolition of slavery. In the annals of American poetry, Moore was a one-hit wonder, but like Ernest Lawrence Thayer with “Casey at the Bat,” the one poem is a classic of American popular culture.
The best history of the transformation of St. Nicholas and the American celebration of Christmas is Stephen Nissenbaum’s 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 (1996). You can also find information online at the St. Nicholas Center: see, in particular, their page on “St. Nicholas and the Origin of Santa Claus.”
And yes, Santa did come to our house this year, and he did bring Bakugan. And Lego sets. Ho, ho, ho!