Little Bits of History

Jolly Old Elf

Posted in History by patriciahysell on December 23, 2010

Cover of a 1912 edition of the poem, illustrated by Jessie Willcox Smith

December 23, 1823: A Visit From St. Nicholas is first published in the Troy, New York paper, the Sentinel. The poem is a tribute to a yearly visit from one of the world’s favorite guests. There is a second name for the poem that is more familiar – ‘Twas the Night Before Christmas. Authorship is contested but is usually given to Clement Moore, a professor at Columbia College [now University] over claims made by Henry Livingston, Jr.’s family.

Saint Nicholas was Bishop from the area that today is known as Turkey. He lived in the 4th century and was a wealthy man. He was also generous and was fond of children. Legend states that he took bags of money and tossed it into the windows of the poor. He was canonized, or made a saint, by the Catholic Church and his feast day was celebrated on December 6.

St. Nicholas’s fame spread across Europe. In the Netherlands his name was rendered as Sinter Nikolass which got shortened into Sinter Klass. During his move from Asia Minor to Europe, other stories were added to the myth. He was given a horse to ride through the night skies. He was also given a helper, an elf named Black Peter. After the Reformation, St. Nicholas’s sharing of gifts was moved from his feast day to another famous day in December. Instead of honoring just the saint, it was thought to be better to honor an important Christian birthday, Jesus’ – celebrated on December 25.

As the Dutch settled in New Amsterdam or as known today, New York, they brought their celebrations with them. Sinter Klass was one of the traditions enjoyed by families. The American slurring of the name changed it to Santa Claus. Washington Irving wrote a detailed story about his excursions in 1809. More details were added to Santa’s legacy by this poem. Thomas Nast, a famous cartoonist, literally fleshed out our picture of Santa, giving him his girth as well as his toyshop at the North Pole. Santa sat in a sleigh, pulled by eight reindeer, right up until 1939 when Rudolph was needed to get through a thick fog.

“Santa Claus has the right idea: visit people once a year.” – Victor Borge

“When we were children we were grateful to those who filled our stockings at Christmas time. Why are we not grateful to God for filling our stockings with legs?” – G.K. Chesterton

“The Church does not superstitiously observe days, merely as days, but as memorials of important facts. Christmas might be kept as well upon one day of the year as another; but there should be a stated day for commemorating the birth of our Saviour, because there is danger that what may be done on any day, will be neglected.” – Samuel Johnson

“But I heard him exclaim, ere he drove out of sight,
‘Happy Christmas to all, and to all a good-night!’” – from the poem

Also on this day, in 1972 the Andes flight disaster finally comes to an end.

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