67. ‘Twas the Night . . .

220px-Diedrich_Knickerbocker

Everybody reads Washington Irving in college because he is IMPORTANT. Almost nobody reads him afterward for pleasure. Sleepy Hollow and Rip Van Winkle live in our racial memory, but nobody actually reads the stories.

I tried to read Knickerbocker’s History of New York and liked it as far as I got. However it was a satire disguised as a history, so I couldn’t enjoy it as fiction and I couldn’t trust it as history. My pleasure died of whiplash.

What does this have to do with Christmas? A great deal, actually. In his “history”, Irving included a dream in which

St. Nicholas came riding over the tops of the trees, in that self-same wagon wherein he brings his yearly presents to children

This is apparently the first introduction into American society of Sinterklass, the Dutch version of St. Nicholas from which our Santa comes. Others took up the banner. We will look at them below, but first let’s see what else Washington Irving did for Christmas.

In 1815, Irving moved to England, and five years later published his Sketch Book. Five of the chapters from that work, frequently published separately today as Old Christmas, extolled the nostalgic joys of the old, rural Christmas traditions of England. Widely read in the United States, it was instrumental in giving Christmas respectability at a time when it was reviled by the religious establishment and degenerating into drunken rowdyism among the working classes. 

Irving was a prominent member of the Knickerbockers, a conservative group opposed to the rise of the mob – that which most of us call democracy. They were particularly horrified by the excesses and vandalism of Christmas as it was practiced at that time. They worked to move the center of celebration from the street to the home.

In 1809, Irving published his History on St. Nicholas’ day. In 1810, the Knickerbockers released a broadside extolling St. Nicholas for his bringing of presents to good little girls and boys – and punishment to the rest. A poem about him appeared that same year. I won’t inflict all of it on you, but the last two lines tell you enough.

From naughty behavior we’ll always refrain,
In hope that you’ll come and reward us again.

Twelve years later another poem called the Children’s Friend was published, with “Santeclaus driving his reindeer o’er chimneytops” and giving gifts to the good little children, but still leaving a switch for the parents to use on the rest.

There is little question that Clement Moore, a Knickerbocker since 1813, knew Knickerbocker’s History, Old Christmas, and both poems when he wrote a poem of his own combining all the happy elements and leaving out the preaching and punishment.

A Visit from St. Nicholas, which we usually call ‘Twas the Night Before Christmas, was the result. Ironically, a group of grumpy, nostalgic elitists who loved order and discipline and hated democracy, eventually gave us a poem which would enthrall children for the next two hundred years.

*     *     *

The poem Children’s Friend is just good enough to be amusing rather than repulsive. You can see a facsimile of an original copy at http://pastispresent.org/2009/good-sources/christmas-treasures-flip-through-the-pages-of-the-children%E2%80%99s-friend/ .

Here it is in plain type. I would be surprised if you like it, but it may give you a greater appreciation of what Clement Moore made of the same materials.

Children’s Friend

Old Santeclaus with much delight
His reindeer drives this frosty night.
O’er chimneytops, and tracks of snow,
To bring his yearly gifts to you.

A steady friend of virtuous youth,
The friend of duty, and of truth,
Each Christmas eve he joys to come
Where love and peace have made their home.

Through many houses he had been,
And various beds and stockings seen,
Some, white as snow, and neatly mended,
Others, that seem’d for pigs intended.

Where e’er I found good girls or boys,
That hated quarrels, strife and noise,
I left an apple, or a tart,
Or wooden gun, or painted cart;

To some I gave a pretty doll,
To some a peg-top, or a ball;
No crackers, cannons, squibs, or rockets,
To blow their eyes up, or their pockets.

No drums to stun their Mother’s ear,
Nor swords to make their sisters fear;
But pretty books to store their mind
With knowledge of each various kind.

But where I found the children naughty,
In manners rude, in temper haughty,
Thankless to parents, liars, swearers,
Boxers, or cheats, or base tale-bearers,

I left a long, black, birchen rod,
Such as the dread command of God
Directs a Parent’s hand to use
When virtue’s path his sons refuse.

Yeah, me too! Same as you, I’ll stick with The Night Before Christmas.

 

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