The Advent Calendar of Literature: Day 8
Yesterday, we delved into the seventeenth-century origins of Father Christmas as a figure associated with revelry and tradition. Here we could see the modern idea of Father Christmas beginning to emerge. But the red robes, the reindeer, and the sleigh had yet to materialise – partly because ‘Father Christmas’ and ‘Santa Claus’ were still viewed as separate figures back then. It was in the nineteenth century that they would begin to be conflated, and it was one poem in particular that would invent much of our modern idea of Santa Claus.
Indeed, much of our modern idea of Santa Claus comes from a very famous poem, the 1823 work ‘A Visit from St Nicholas’. More commonly known by its first line, ‘’Twas the night before Christmas’, this poem was published anonymously on 23 December 1823 in the New York newspaper, Sentinel. The poem popularised the image of St Nick as a jolly fat man wearing fur-trimmed red robes (long before the Coca-Cola adverts popularised the red robes).
The poem also introduced us to the names of all of Santa’s reindeer (with the exception of Rudolph, who would not come into being until the 1930s). ‘A Visit from St Nicholas’ was published anonymously, and its authorship remains a contentious issue. Clement Clarke Moore, an American scholar of Hebrew, came forward as the author in 1837, and his claim has been largely accepted – although a rival group of scholars credit Henry Livingston Jr., another American poet (who also had about a hundred other jobs, during the course of his life), as the one we should thank for the poem. A detailed account of the ‘St Nicholas Authorship Question’ (which finds in favour of Moore) can be found here.
You can read the poem here.
Image: Cover of ‘Twas the Night Before Christmas (1912 edition); Wikimedia Commons.