Last week's column revived the story of Clement Moore, the author of ‘Twas the Night Before Christmas, written 190 years ago just over the border and printed in the Troy sentinel, a local paper in Troy, N.Y.
From this one poem, some argue, we get much of our legend and understanding of Santa Claus. Where did Moore, a professor of languages and Episcopalian scholar, get his understanding?
I have been investigating -- as thoroughly as I can, since I can't do what any journalist would most want to: Sit down wth Moore over coffee and ask him.
The original St. Nicholas was a bishop of Myra, a city on the coast of Byzantium, now Turkey, in 300 A.D. As a man, he lived through Roman persecutions of Christians and the founding of Constantinople. (But what did he believe or sing or pray on Christmas eve? He spoke Greek, like Clement Moore, and would have read Sappho's poetry as a student -- verses we lost centuries ago. And did Christians in 300 A.D. have church buildings, when the faith was still young and vulnerable?)
As a saint, Nicholas became known for generosity and traveled, in story, north and west across Europe. Here he met the myths of Yule and midwinter -- and of Odin, the Norse god, who traveled at Yuletide in a cart puled by a goat. And Nicholas' name became, in Dutch, Sinterklaus.
Follow the Dutch settlers and stories to the Hudson River, where they settled to trade with the Mohicans and the Iroquois, and chartered the city of Troy when Moore was 37 (in 1816).
Moore had a legend that had traveled through many languages. And Historian Seth Kaller suggests that in writing his visit from St. Nicholas, Moore had in mind another wry and fluent New York man of letters: Washington Irving.
In one of his earliest books, the one that first made his name familiar, Irving wrote an ironic history of his home state and its Dutch roots: "A History of New-York from the Beginning of the World to the End of the Dutch Dynasty, by Diedrich Knickerbocker (1809)."
Irving described a visit from Santa Claus -- as he appears to newly arrived settlers snoozing by a camp fire after a meal of oysters gathered from the river. Thanks to modern technology, I can read Irving's passage at my desk (the whole book appears on Google Books).
Here is a St. Nick in rugged and comfortable clothing, a winter spirit I can imagine currying muddy reindeer -- or telling stories in a Mohican winter village, around the fire in a dry and well-insulated longhouse.
" The good St. Nicholas came riding over the tops of the trees, in that self same wagon wherein he brings his yearly presents to children. and the shrewd Van Cortlandt knew him by his broad hat, his long pipe ... and he lit his pipe by the fire, and he sat himself down and smoked; and as he smoked, the smoke from his pipe ascended into the air, and spread like a cloud overhead. ..."
He sounds to me irresistably like Gandalf in "The Hobbitt" blowing smoke rings in Bilbo's garden.
Irving's dreamer climbs a tree to see more clearly, and below him "the great volume of smoke assumed a variety of marvelous forms, where, in dim obscurity, he saw shadowed out palaces and domes and lofty spires, all which lasted but a moment ...."
"... And when St. Nicholas had smoked his pipe, he twisted it in his hatband, and laying his finger beside his nose, gave the astonished Van Kortlandt a very significant look; then mounting his wagon, he returned over the tree tops and disappeared."