Skip

Clement Clark, No More?
December 24, 2007 7:59 AM   Subscribe

What to my wondering eyes should appear but the suggestion that "A Visit From St. Nicholas," the classic poem which has defined the American Santa Claus, from red suit and big belly to reindeer and chimney-delivery method, was written not by classics professor Clement Clarke Moore but by poet and military man Henry Livingston. Though some think the authorship controversy is sugarplum vision of Livingston's descendents, other scholars the claim: literary 'detective' Donald Foster agrees (though his sleuthing record is not unblemished). Leading historian of Christmas Stephen Nissenbaum, says that either way, St. Nick is the product of the same social world, that of the wealthy white elite in the New York of the early Republic. If the claim is true, then in the convoluted history of the manuscript we've gotten some reindeer names wrong.
posted by Miko (17 comments total) 3 users marked this as a favorite

 
I always thought it was Donder and Blixen. I'll go argue the other points after I actually read them.
posted by etaoin at 8:21 AM on December 24, 2007


Oddly enough, I was taught "Donder and Blitzen". Doesn't matter 'cause my mind goes sort of detached anywhere in the vicinity of the word "vixen" anyway.
posted by Wolfdog at 8:34 AM on December 24, 2007


I found the "why" more interesting than the "who". Now I want to go wassailing in some ritzy area and commit some mindless vandalism until someone gives me alcohol.

Besides, it's not as if I have anything much better to do.
posted by Chuckles McLaughy du Haha, the depressed clown at 8:42 AM on December 24, 2007


I always thought it was Donder and Blixen.

It's odd how "culture" decides on a point in time when "tradition" begins. It's like nothing has happened before or after the 19th century and somehow that random point in time is now held inviolate.
posted by three blind mice at 8:45 AM on December 24, 2007


"...we've gotten some reindeer names wrong."

Blitzen is a lush.
Donder has dandruff.
Cupid answers to "yellow snow breath."
Prancer responds best to "Hello Sailor!"
Rudolph is too high on the crack to respond to anything.
Vixen failed the last three drug tests: she's on the roids.
Other reindeer in the stables include "J.J.," "Alfredo," "The Admiral" who's a freakin' loony, and "Winchester." Santa hasn't updated the public roster in decades. Most of the reindeer we think are still pulling Nick's weight have been unofficially "retired" for many seasons. Except for Dasher, but that's cuz he takes viagra.
posted by ZachsMind at 9:06 AM on December 24, 2007


It's like nothing has happened before or after the 19th century

Well, as far as American Christmas traditions go, they really mostly did arise in the 19th century. Before 1800, what people called Christmas would be more like the festival Chuckles, etc., is envisioning.

And even beyond Christmas, a lot of what we now consider the American character and American culture were established in the 1800s, much of that quite intentionally. The Dutch-American elite of New York were consciously trying to create an American identity as an alternative to the European traditions they found low-class and threatening to their capitalist/industrialist goals. Not long before 1800, this wasn't a culture or country of its own - it was mostly a troublesome colony of English people trying to hack a European lifestyle by extracting resources from a landscape developde by the indigenous people. As far as pop culture, the early Republic folk and Victorians kind of created the idea of what "American" was.
posted by Miko at 9:22 AM on December 24, 2007 [1 favorite]


From Snopes: but the explanation is oddly inconsistent in the former case — 'donner' is the German word for 'thunder,' so if Moore were familiar with German, why would he have retained the spelling of Blitzen's partner's name as 'Dunder' or 'Donder' rather than altering it to the more appropriate 'Donner'?

This is a very modern, very American question to ask, based as it is on the assumption that German speech of the mid-1800s was as stable, uniform and consistent as American speech is now. If a Dutch resident of New York said "dunder" and standard said German "Donner", it might be harder than you'd imagine to discover now what the word would have been in the speech of any given immigrant Moore would have encountered, especially one of rural origin, from that part of the world.
posted by George_Spiggott at 9:38 AM on December 24, 2007


"On pens and on pencils, on mugs and on mousepads!"
The Day Before Christmas a self-linking gift to office workers everywhere
posted by wendell at 10:56 AM on December 24, 2007


my dad has to read me this poem every year no matter where I am or what I am doing. I am sitting here right now in Bahia Brasil making sure that my cell phone is in range because he is going to call any minute. In all my 31 years he has not failed to read it. I remember when I was in my early 20´s I didn´t really know how much of a tradition it was to him and almost blew off letting him call. This was the days before cell phones. I think he almost got on a plane from baltimore to read me it. He finally got a hold of my friends in the bay area and had them find me at the bar. My dad isn´t the most nostalgic guy but something got him as a kid with that poem and he loves reading it every year. I´m a man now, but I know that I will be a real man one day when I read this to my son or daughter wherever they reside in the world.

waiting for the call...
posted by LouieLoco at 1:07 PM on December 24, 2007 [3 favorites]


alas, not everyone has that festive mood.
There are some out there

http://www.scarysquirrel.org/santa/

that badmouth Santa and tell kids the truth about him
posted by Postroad at 1:26 PM on December 24, 2007


The whole Santa thing is actually both the most beautiful and ugly conspiracy theory in the history of mankind. When you really think about it it's kinda loopy, creepy, and simultaneously it's unbelievably amazingly wonderful.

It's a conspiracy. It's international. While not every adult is in on the scam, practically every Christian parent is, and variants of Santa from Sinter Klaus to Father Christmas are all over the planet. Scores of nations around the world. Every year the mass media and corporate conglomerates go out of their way to fabricate his existence and get in on the act. We have people dress up as him to fool kids. It's amazing. NORAD even claims to track Saint Nick every Christmas. Professional news departments purposefully fabricate radar so that Santa appears as a blip for the evening news reports. That's messed up.

It's like we're all in on a Jamie Kennedy Experiment prank and we're doing it to four year olds. There's some scifi stories that are more believable than this, yet it's for real. No wonder aliens don't visit this planet: we're psycho crazy people who lie to our children. We raise our children by making up reality for them, and we try to hide from them what's actually out there. Then we're surprise to find our kids grow up unprepared for reality. Duh.

But hey. Y'know. Great poem and all... Happy holidays!
posted by ZachsMind at 2:57 PM on December 24, 2007


Francis Bacon wrote everything published in English before 1833, when Charles Dickens's sister Fanny began writing what would become everything published in English up to and including 1956. Scholars are still searching for the unknown author whom they believe wrote everything since 1956. So far, they've ruled out Norman Vincent Peale.
posted by pracowity at 3:00 PM on December 24, 2007 [1 favorite]



And even beyond Christmas, a lot of what we now consider the American character and American culture were established in the 1800s, much of that quite intentionally. The Dutch-American elite of New York were consciously trying to create an American identity as an alternative to the European traditions they found low-class and threatening to their capitalist/industrialist goals. Not long before 1800, this wasn't a culture or country of its own - it was mostly a troublesome colony of English people trying to hack a European lifestyle by extracting resources from a landscape developde by the indigenous people. As far as pop culture, the early Republic folk and Victorians kind of created the idea of what "American" was.

I think this is so oversimplified as to lose both correctness and coherence. By 1800, the landscape being developed bore no resemblance at all to the landscapes of 1700, when the indigenous people had been driven away from the major cities of the Eastern seaboard. In the eighteenth century, especially after 1750, both Americans and Brits knew that they inhabited different worlds; in particular, America was a far less stratified and "courtly" society. After the Revolution (roughly until the demise of the Federalists in the 1810s), the nationalism of the Early Republic took those demographic and cultural differences and made them touchstones of a distinct and clear-cut American identity--but the materials of that creation were already clear by the time the Constitution was ratified.
The Dutch-American elite was involved less as a nationalizing force than as a conservative and aristocratic rear guard; really, the nineteenth-century American brand of nationalism was shaped by Andrew Jackson, who could not have been less Dutch-American elite.

Merry Christmas!
posted by nasreddin at 4:23 PM on December 24, 2007


nasreddin, not quite - landscape being developed in 1800 lay on the frontier, which is now the near Midwest - but Eastern civilisation still had a very shallow penetration into the hinterland, and was focused on port cities and the export market to a very large extent. The rest of your post is certainly worthy of debate as well -- the nationalistic agenda of the New York Dutch was certainly a different strain from that of Jacksonian rhetoric, but was important far earlier; both constructions of 'Americanness' still intertwine in our culture, among of course many others.

Industry was still almost exclusively extractive until post-Revolutionary times, unlike England, and both the land and water frontiers were the primary sources of wealth for relatively newly minted Americans. And when I say characterize American history to 1800 as "mostly a troublesome English colony," I am recognizing the fact of its existence as an English colony for the 155 years previous to the Revolution. The development of a colonial identity is not the same thing as the development of an American identity.

To be fair, my statements are as simplistic as your counterstatement, but nowhere near off the mark enough to lose "correctness and coherence." They are a general response to a suggestion above that the nineteenth century has somehow been arbitrarily picked to represent the American past. My point is that it was not arbitrary at all, and that the search for a republican identity was calculated and intentional.

There is mroe than enough documentary evidence in the hallowed archives of the New-York Historical Society to support the direct connection of the Dutch-American desire to establish a Christmas legend with their desire to suppress the raucous, Old-World Christmas traditions of recent immigrants. It's easy to trace explicitly. In fact, if you haven't read Nissenbaum's book The Battle for Christmas, you really should. He does some amazing reasoning.

We could certainly continue to talk like this, but I didn't do it earlier because I thought it would be really boring for anyone reading on Christmas Eve. So carry on if you like, I'm going to celebrate. Merry Christmas!
posted by Miko at 4:52 PM on December 24, 2007


LouieLoco that made my night.
posted by CitrusFreak12 at 5:18 PM on December 24, 2007


Thanks for the thoughtful response, Miko, I could keep debating but I haven't the energy. In general, though, I'd modify the claim that the construction of nationalism was calculated and deliberate--it may have been, but the outcome was the result of conflicts between many different kinds of nationalism driven by different actors in different contexts. For instance, the Dutch-American sort of nationalism, though it was important before Jacksonianism, almost certainly grew out of a sectional, rather than American, Yorker/Knickerbocker identity developed to oppose the encroaching Connecticut, Massachusetts and New Hampshire Yankees in the 1750s-'60s. In part, too, Christmas as a holiday endowed with nationalistic significance filled the void left by the decline of self-consciously national secular holidays like the Stamp Act repeal and the Boston Massacre. I don't think we disagree much, I just don't like the single-agent conspiratorial hypothesis; it smacks of the eighteenth century.
posted by nasreddin at 5:19 PM on December 24, 2007


No you're right; we don't disagree much, Merry Christmas.
posted by Miko at 11:07 PM on December 27, 2007


« Older Hogfather   |   a parable of rodents and men Newer »


This thread has been archived and is closed to new comments



Post