don’t tell us, just hand the plot over

December 24, 2013 § Leave a comment


The story goes something like this: right around Christmas time in 1822, Clement Moore went out in a carriage to buy presents for his family. His wife, Catherine, and his six children (all between the ages of 8 months and 7 years old) waited for him to return so that they could carve the turkey and celebrate the holiday together. Before he left on his shopping expedition, his 6- year-old daughter, Charity, asked him to write “something special” for Christmas and so, with the snow starting to fall and the carriage loaded up with presents, Moore wrote “A Visit from St. Nicholas,” a long poem that he would read to his family later that evening and that, according to legend, they absolutely loved.

It was not until the following Christmastime that the poem was printed, so for a whole year those lines were the private property of the Moore family. Then one day Charity showed the poem to Harriet Butler, who was a friend of Moore’s and the daughter of the Reverend David Butler of St. Paul’s Episcopal Church in Troy, New York. Harriet Butler made a copy and sent it to Orville L. Holley, the editor of the Troy Sentinel, with no author’s name attached. And that is how it came to be printed on December 23, 1823, in the Troy Sentinel. Moore’s name would not be associated with the poem until 1837, when his friend, the editor Charles Fenno Hoffman, printed it in the New York Book of Poetry. Moore eventually printed it himself in his first and only book of poems, which wasn’t published until 1844, over two decades after its original printing.

In many ways this is a typical story of 19th-century verse composition and circulation. Poems were often published anonymously, and often this anonymity gave rise to much-desired readerly speculation and rumor. (There are some, I should say, who will still make the case that Moore was not the author of this poem, but that’s another story entirely and not the one I am going to tell here.) But why did this particular version of Santa Claus’s Christmas Eve visitation get more attention than others, since others were circulating at the time? And why was Moore so slow to deny authorship of it? What lies behind the myth of Moore’s now almost two-century-old composition of this poem for his daughter?

It’s hard to read the poem as anything other than a utopian, feel-good fantasy of holiday giving and magical surprise, written, as the story above tells us, by a father for the entertainment of his family. If you like, go ahead and read them that way one last time…  read more

PHOTOGRAPH: [unattributed]

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