Commonplace
-
www.common-place.org · vol. 1 · no. 2 · January 2001
-

Nast Santa
Thomas Nast, cover for Harper's Weekley, 1863.

 

 

"In the real world of New York, misrule came to a head at Christmastime."

There Arose Such a Clatter
Who Really Wrote "The Night before Christmas"? (And Why Does It Matter?)

Stephen Nissenbaum

Part I | II | III

III. And Why Does It Matter?

Clement Moore was no child-hating, mendacious curmudgeon. But to say that he was capable of writing light domestic verse is not to say that "The Night before Christmas" is nothing but a light-hearted children's poem, a mere esprit in which the real man is nowhere to be discerned. There is in fact no reason why humorous works written for children may not also contain the seeds of serious adult concerns. Alice in Wonderland comes quickly to mind, of course, not to mention virtually any "fairy tale." "The Night before Christmas" too is just such a work, a fact which strengthens the case for Moore's authorship. Understanding this requires understanding the New York social world in which Moore lived, a world in which St. Nicholas was emerging as a real cultural presence in the first two decades of the nineteenth century.

This was the world of self-dubbed "knickerbockers," a group of men whose collective home was the New-York Historical Society, founded in 1804 by John Pintard. Pintard actually introduced St. Nicholas as the symbolic patron saint of the Historical Society, which held annual dinners on December 6, St. Nicholas Day. (According to the scholar who investigated this subject, before Pintard's interventions there had been no evidence of Santa Claus rituals in the state of New York.) The most famous member of the New-York Historical Society was Washington Irving, who made much of St. Nicholas in his 1809 book Knickerbocker's History of New York, which was actually published on St. Nicholas Day. It was Irving who popularized St. Nicholas in the 1810s. Clement Moore joined the New-York Historical Society in 1813.

St. Nicholas
Broadside of St. Nicholas, 1810, commissioned by John Pintard. Courtesy the New-York Historical Society.

For the Historical Society's St. Nicholas Day dinner in 1810, John Pintard commissioned the publication of a broadside containing a picture of St. Nicholas in the form of a rather stern, magisterial bishop, bringing gifts for good children and punishments for bad ones. Two weeks later, and presumably in response to Pintard's broadside, a New York newspaper printed a poem about St. Nicholas. Moore almost certainly knew of this poem; in fact, it is just barely possible that he wrote it. The poem is narrated by a child who is essentially offering a prayer to the stern saint.

The poem is in--what else?--anapestic tetrameter. It opens: "Oh good holy man! whom we Sancte Claus name, / The Nursery forever your praise shall proclaim." It goes on to catalogue the presents St. Nicholas might be hoped to leave, followed by an entreaty that he not come for the purpose of punishment ("[I]f in your hurry one thing you mislay, / Let that be the Rod--and oh! keep it away.") And it concludes with a promise of future good behavior:

Then holy St. Nicholas! all the year,
Our books we will love and our parents revere,
From naughty behavior we'll always refrain,
In hopes that you'll come and reward us again.

Like Clement Moore, the knickerbockers who brought St. Nicholas to New York were a deeply conservative group who loathed the democrats and the capitalists who were taking over their city and their nation. Washington Irving disdainfully summarized in the Knickerbocker History an episode which clearly represented to his readers the Jeffersonian Revolution of 1800: "[J]ust about this time the mob, since called the sovereign people . . . exhibited a strange desire of governing itself." And in 1822 (a year before the first publication of "The Night before Christmas"), John Pintard explained to his daughter just why he was opposed to a new state constitution adopted that year, a constitution that gave men without property the right to vote: "All power," Pintard wrote, "is to be given, by the right of universal suffrage, to a mass of people, especially in this city, which has no stake in society. It is easier to raise a mob than to quell it, and we shall hereafter be governed by rank democracy . . . Alas that the proud state of New York should be engulfed in the abyss of ruin."

During these same years, Clement Moore's large home estate (named Chelsea) was being systematically destroyed by the city of New York, divided up by right of eminent domain into a new series of numbered streets and avenues that were a product of the city's rapid northward expansion. (Chelsea extended all the way from what is now called Eighteenth Street to Twenty-fourth Street, and from Eighth to Tenth Avenues--a large chunk of real estate indeed, and one that is known to this day as the Chelsea District.) In 1818, Moore published a tract protesting against New York's relentless development. In that tract he expressed a fear that the city was in what he termed "destructive and ruthless hands," the hands of men who did not "respect the rights of property." He was pessimistic about the future: "We know not the amount nor the extent of oppression which may yet be reserved for us."

In short, both Moore himself and his fellow knickerbockers felt that they belonged to a patrician class whose authority was under siege. From that angle, the knickerbocker interest in St. Nicholas was part of a larger, ultimately quite serious cultural enterprise: forging a pseudo-Dutch identity for New York, a placid "folk" identity that could provide a cultural counterweight to the commercial bustle and democratic misrule of the early-nineteenth-century city. (Incidentally, Don Foster should be wary about taking Henry Livingston's "Dutch" persona wholly at face value, as a lingering manifestation of traditional folk culture; I'm inclined to suspect it was highly self-conscious.) The best-known literary expression of this larger knickerbocker enterprise is Irving's classic story "Rip Van Winkle" (published in 1819), the tale of a lazy but contented young Dutchman who falls asleep for twenty years and awakens to a world transformed, a topsy-turvy world in which he seems to have no place.

In the real world of New York, misrule came to a head at Christmastime. As I have shown in my book The Battle for Christmas, this season had traditionally been a time of carnival behavior, especially among those whom the knickerbockers considered "plebeians." Bands of roving youths, lubricated by alcohol, went about town making merry, making noise, and sometimes making trouble. Ritual usage sanctioned their practice of stopping at the houses of the well-to-do and demanding gifts of food and especially drink--a form of trick-or-treat commonly known as "wassailing." After 1800, this Christmas misrule took on a nastier tone, as young and alienated working-class New Yorkers began to use wassailing as a form of rambling riot, sometimes invading people's homes and vandalizing their property. One particularly serious episode took place during the 1827 Christmas season; one newspaper reported it to have been the work of a mob that was not only "stimulated by drink" but also "enkindled by resentment." The newspaper warned its readers not "to wink at such excesses, merely because they occur at a season of festivity. A license of this description will soon turn festivals of joy, into regular periods of fear to the inhabitants, and will end in scenes of riot, intemperance, and bloodshed." (There is no evidence that Clement Moore's Chelsea home was disturbed by roving gangs, despite the new cross-streeted vulnerability of the property, but in "A Trip to Saratoga" he noted that noisy drunken hotel guests often made "the sounds of strife or wassail, in the night.")

Washington Irving and John Pintard were both nostalgic for the days when wassailing had been a more innocent practice, and both were concerned about the way Christmas had lately become a season of menace. Each, in his own way, engaged in an effort to reclaim the season. Irving wrote stories of idyllic English holiday celebrations (he did much of his research at the New-York Historical Society), and Pintard went about devising new seasonal rituals that were restricted to family and friends. His introduction of St. Nicholas at the Historical Society after 1804 was part of that effort.

And "The Night before Christmas," published in 1823, became its apotheosis. What these enduring verses accomplished was to address all the problems of elite New Yorkers at Christmastime. Using the raw material already devised out of Dutch tradition by John Pintard and Washington Irving, the poem transformed stern and dignified St. Nicholas into a jolly old elf, Santa Claus, a magical figure who brought only gifts, no punishments or threats. Just as important, the poem provided a simple and effective ceremony that enabled its readers to restrict the holiday to their own family, and to place at its heart the presentation of gifts to their children--in a profoundly gratifying, ritual alternative to the rowdy street scene that was taking place outside. "The Night before Christmas" moved the Christmas gift exchange off the streets and into the house--a secure domestic space in which there really was "nothing to dread." And don't forget that in real life, prosperous people did have something to dread--after all, those wassailing plebeians might not be satisfied to remain outside.

"The Night before Christmas" contains a sly allusion to that possibility: for Santa Claus himself is a personage who breaks into people's houses in the middle of the night at Christmastime. But of course this particular housebreaker comes not to take but to give--to wish goodwill without having received anything in return. "The Night before Christmas" raises the ever present threat--the "dread"--but only in order to defuse it, to offer jolly assurance that the well-being of the household will not be disturbed but only enhanced by this nocturnal holiday visitor.

Did Clement Clarke Moore write "The Night before Christmas"? I believe he did, and I think I have marshaled an array of good evidence to prove, in any case, that Moore had the means, the opportunity, and even the motive to write the poem. Like Don Foster's, my evidence must necessarily be circumstantial, but I believe mine is better than his. Some of my evidence is quite straightforward. All of it is based on the belief that historical circumstance helped make Clement Moore a figure of greater complexity than either his admirers or his detractors have recognized, and that he might well have revealed that complexity in a poem he almost certainly did regard as nothing more than a throwaway children's piece. But, then again, what more likely occasion for a curmudgeonly patrician to confront his inner demon?

Especially when he could turn him into a jolly old elf.

 

Further Reading:

Don Foster's essay appears as chapter 6 of his book Author Unknown: On the Trail of Anonymous (New York, 2000). Section 3 of the present essay is based on chapters 1 and 2 of my book The Battle for Christmas (New York, 1996); see also Charles W. Jones, "Knickerbocker Santa Claus," The New-York Historical Society Quarterly 38 (1954): 356-83. The only biography of Clement Clarke Moore, albeit hagiographic, is Samuel W. Patterson, The Poet of Christmas Eve: A life of Clement Clarke Moore, 1779-1863 (New York, 1956); see also Arthur N. Hosking, "The Life of Clement Clark Moore," appended to a facsimile reprint of the 1848 edition of Moore's "A Visit from St. Nicholas" (New York, 1934). Another satirical account of a visit to Saratoga is James K. Paulding, The New Mirror for Travelers; and Guide to the Springs (New York, 1828); himself a knickerbocker, Paulding also wrote The Book of Saint Nicholas (New York, 1836). The transformation of New York City can be followed in Paul A. Gilje, The Road to Mobocracy: Popular Disorder in New York City, 1763-1834 (Chapel Hill, 1989); Raymond A. Mohl, Poverty in New York, 1783-1825 (New York, 1971); Christine Stansell, City of Women: Sex and Class in New York, 1789-1860 (New York, 1986); and Sean Wilentz, Chants Democratic: New York City and the Rise of the American Working Class, 1788-1850 (New York, 1984); see also Susan G. Davis, Parades and Power: Street Theatre in Nineteenth-Century Philadelphia (Philadelphia, 1986). For the notion of "invented traditions" (such as St. Nicholas in New York), see Eric J. Hobsbawm and Terence Ranger, eds., The Invention of Tradition (Cambridge: 1983).

prev this issue home

Discuss this article in the Republic of Letters

-

-
Copyright © 2000 Common-place The Interactive Journal of Early American Life, Inc., all rights reserved