Thursday, November 29, 2012

A Visit from Saint Nicholas

Read Charlotte Canelli's column in the November 30, 2012 edition of the Norwood Transcript and Bulletin.

One December in the late 50s my mother sat me down with piles of construction paper, scissors and stacks of old Christmas cards. She gave up these treasures from our family and friends so that I could create my own illustrated versions of The Night Before Christmas. The holiday cards, artfully trimmed with pinking shears, created delightful scenes - flocked reindeer and glittered snow-covered landscapes. Embossed and colorful santas rested next to crayoned fireplaces and doorways of my creation. I was occupied for days and hours and it seems my mother knew exactly what she was doing.

I treasured both the activity and the finished product, mailing several of these illustrated books to faraway relatives. One copy survived in my childhood scrapbook and I rediscovered it just a few weeks ago. Memories of that season spent with several bottles of golden mucilage glue, a 64-color box of Binney and Smith Crayolas and my mother’s special paper-cutting pinking shears bring a smile to my face as I realize once again what inspiration my mother was to a lifetime of interests.

Clement C. Moore wrote The Night Before Christmas to amuse his six children in December 1822, nearly two centuries ago. The poem was published anonymously the next year in a newspaper in but Moore refused to claim authorship of it until his children insisted that he include it in an anthology of his work in 1844. Legend goes that Moore actually wrote the poem in his head during a snowy shopping trip traveling by sleigh. Whether this fancy is true or not, the quintessential American poem has certainly survived as one of our most beloved poems.

Moore bore no resemblance to the Saint Nicholas he himself created. Clement C. Moore was a rather austere, serious intellectual who wrote more serious poetry and compiled a Hebrew-English lexicon. A native New Yorker, born in Queens and a graduate of Columbia College, he was a scholar and professor of biblical studies in Manhattan. The images he created in A Visit From Saint Nicolas (later named The Night Before Christmas, or ‘Twas the Night Before Christmas) however, can be credited with many of the conceptions we have of Christmas. His impressions of old Saint Nick as Santa Claus, a herd of flying reindeer and an oversized sleigh have survived or have been embellished for nearly two hundred years.

Jolly and chubby Saint Nicholas was actually inspired by a local Dutch handyman that the Moore family knew. Moore gave us eight reindeer, two of them bearing the Dutch names of Dunder and Blixem (a duo that translates to Thunder and Lightning in English.)

Authorship is never without controversy, it seems. In recent years, Moore’s authorship has come into question by Donald Foster, an English professor of textual analysis. Foster argues that a distant relative of Clement Moore’s wife, Henry P. Livingston, actually wrote the poem. Whether Moore wrote it or not, every one of the hundreds of illustration version sever published credits him as the author.

On the other hand, illustrators of The Night Before Christmas can be counted in the hundreds. In 1928, illustrator Elizabeth MacKinstry compiled a list of classic illustrations of The Night Before Christmas dating to the late 19th Century including Thomas Nast, Arthur Rackham, Jessie Wilcox Smith and W.W. Denslow.

My favorite illustrated version of the book is one compiled by Cooper Edens and Harold Darling in 1998. It includes many of the most beloved classic scenes by 19th Century and early 20th Century artists. Many more unknown artists of antique postcards and magazine illustrations are included with their own visions of Moore’s Christmas characters and scenes. The verse on each page begins with “initial cap” letters created by Jessie Wilcox Smith in 1912.

The Night Before Christmas (1998) illustrated by New Hampshire’s Jan Brett is a particularly whimsical version. Brett found Stockbridge, Massachusetts as her inspiration and while she was a bit nervous using Norman Rockwell’s beloved setting for her illustrations, she found putting the musical notes of Moore’s poetry and the magic of her own colorful illustrations a perfect experience. She included a few stowaway elves and distinctive Jan Brett borders to create a delightful book. Not everyone knows that Jan Brett is a part-time chicken farmer who names her yearly brood after the characters in her recent book. I can only imagine Donder and Blitzen cavorting around her chicken coop that year.

Tasha Tudor, another New England children’s author and illustrator, used Moore’s poem as her inspiration in 1975 and created a classic version beloved by a generation. Tudor was born Starling Burgess in 1915 but her father loved the name of Tolstoy’s War and Peace character, Natasha and so nicknamed her Tasha. Tudor legally changed her last name to that of her mother who was an illustrator in her own right. After her parents divorced and her mother moved to Greenwich Village to pursue her art career, Tasha was raised in Connecticut by relatives. The comforting snowy landscapes in her rural New England hometown inspired her art and translated that reality to her own fantasy of Moore’s Christmas poem.

Author/ illustrator, Tomie DePaola collects New England quilts and he used likenesses of them as borders in his version of The Night Before Christmas published in 1980. The book was DePaola’s 100th published book. Versions of Grandma Moses’ Night Before Christmas were published in 1948, 1961 and 1991 using drawings from her series of folk-art Christmas paintings.

Whichever version s of A Visit from St. Nicholas are your favorites, the libraries of the Minuteman Library Network have multiple copies of many of them. If you would like to reserve any of them in time for the night before Christmas, please call the Reference or Information desks of the library, 781-769-0200, or visit the Minuteman Library Network catalog online to reserve them.