Dec. 25, 1999
A Child's Christmas in Wales, from
Twas the Night Before Christmas
Poems: "Twas the Night Before Christmas" by Clement Clark Moore; and, from A Child’s Christmas in Wales by Dylan Thomas, published by New Directions.
Today is Christmas Day, celebrated many ways by many denominationsand in many non-religious waysdepending on the nation, region, and historical period. The first recorded celebration of Christmas took place in 336 AD, in Rome. In America, the first Dutch settlers brought with them their image of a tall, saintly bishop, St. Nicholas, informally called ‘Sinterklaas’ for his custom of putting cinders in the stockings of children who had not been as good as they might have been. The name shifted from Sinterklaas to Santa Claus as English took over from Dutch, and New Amsterdam became New York. But the figure stayed upright and proper until 1822, when a professor of Greek and Oriental literature, Clement Clarke Moore, wrote a page of holiday verse for his children. He made up the 56 lines to "A Visit from St. Nicholas" while returning home in Manhattan one snowy evening after buying the family’s Christmas turkey. The sound of Santa’s sleigh and bells were suggested to him by the jingling of his own horse and sleigh; the rotund form of Santa was based on a farmer friend. A cousin, listening to him read the poem to his children, was so charmed she copied it down and later showed it to the daughter of a minister in Troy, New York, near Albanyand so, the next year, Moore’s lines appeared anonymously in the Troy Sentinel. This annoyed the good scholar, since he had composed the poem only for his children and since, as a serious man, he didn’t approve of the frivolous way he saw Christmas being celebrated, and was embarrassed to be associated with the holiday’s decline in respectfulness. But soon his poem was picked up by other papers, until it was not only widely popular but presented new images for an increasingly secular Christmas. Two generations later, in the early 1860s, political cartoonist Thomas Nast drew a Santa Claus in Harper’s Illustrated Weekly, based on Clement Moore’s rotund bearded figure, the "dressed all in fur" description of his outfit now embellished as a red, ermine-trimmed suit, with a wide leather belt and shiny black boots. This evolved vision of Santa grew so popular, Nast made him an annual tradition, drawing new scenes every Christmas for nearly 30 years.
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