SANTA AND HIS REINDEERS THE POEM THAT STARTED IT ALL
By Wendy Hughes
Think of Santa Claus and one immediately has a mental image of a jolly Santa flying through the sky on a high red sleigh, pulled by his happy band of reindeers. But who created Santa Claus? Why reindeers? And what started the myth that we all love so much?
Reindeers are greatly valued to the Lapps of Scandinavia, and are not really a domesticated animal, but despite this many native people have domesticated reindeers. For them reindeers provide all their basic needs, and can be considered as a symbiosis between man and animal since humans often protect the reindeers from predators. Reindeer meat provides a delicious steak for the hungry Lapp family; in fact every part of the reindeer has a useful purpose. Reindeer hair is used as stuffing for mattresses and in soft furnishings. The skin makes ideal jackets, trousers and mittens to keep out the biting cold, and can also be used as non-skid leather for the soles of shoes – a great necessity when walking on ice. The reindeer sinew is used as thread, and is especially good for sewing canoes, because it swells and makes watertight seams. The antlers are used to provide knife handles and needles.
So how did this non-cuddly very practical animal become associated with the festive season and the rosy cheeked Father Christmas that we have all come to know and love?
A creation to amuse his children
The creation of our popular Father Christmas figure with his happy band of reindeers pulling his sleigh is that of Dr Clement Clarke Moore, of Columbia University, New York. It is said that in 1822 he set out in a horse-drawn sleigh to deliver Christmas presents to friends around the snow-covered city. As he drove through the crisp night air he was reminded that his nine children had longed for him to write a poem about St Nicholas, and by the time he had reached home he had mentally composed a poem which he was later to call ‘A Visit from Saint Nicholas’ which in turn changed the way the whole world would view Christmas from then on. The poem, especially the idea of eight small reindeer drawing the sled, laden with presents, from rooftop to rooftop captured the imagination of Dr Moore’s young children who, after it had been written down, begged him to read the poem to them over and over again.
Dr Moore was the son of Rev. Benjamin Moore, a president of Columbia Collage (now University). Dr Moore had a lifelong interest in church matters and became professor of Oriental and Greek Literature at the General Theological Seminary.
Until this time Saint Nicholas had been portrayed at Christmas time as a stern bishop leading a donkey laden with gifts, and it was the custom in many countries to leave a posy of flowers on the table for this old saint together with some hay for the donkey. Sometimes the saint had been thought of as someone who traveled from place to place on the back of a horse, of various colors, and sometimes he was even depicted as being dragged through the sky by a team of white goats.
Fate lends a helping hand to publication
Unknown the Dr Moore a guest staying with the family during Christmas 1822 copied the
poem and gave it to the Troy (NY) Sentinel where it was published anonymously, on
December 23 1823. Soon the poem that Dr Moore had penned so carelessly and effortlessly
became the great Christmas poem of America and the UK under the better known title of
‘Twas the Night Before Christmas,’ which it still bears and is printed widely throughout the
world at this time of the year. His poem became very popular and it helped to firmly establish
Saint Nicholas as a Christmas Eve figure, and projected him to a vast public as a traveler
through the sky on a sleigh by reindeer
Everyone who read the poem wanted to know who had written it, so when Dr Moore had to
admit that he had composed the poem he was not pleased. He did not want to be
remembered as the creator of the new Santa Claus with his reindeer, because he feared that
his more scholarly works would not be taken seriously anymore. In fact it was not until
twenty-two years later, in 1844, that he allowed the poem to be credited to him. Here it is
printed in full for reader’s enjoyment:
‘Twas the night before Christmas, when all through the house
Not a creature was stirring not even a mouse:
The stockings were hung by the chimney with care
In hope that Saint Nicholas would soon be there;
The children were nestled all snug un their beds,
While visions of sugar-plums danced in their heads;
.And mamma in her ‘kerchief, and I in my cap.
Had just settled down for a long winter’s nap,
When out on the lawn there arose such a clatter,
I sprang from the bed to see that was the matter.
A way to the window I flew like a flash,
Tore open the shutters and threw up the sash.
The moon on the breast of the new-fallen snow
Gave the lustre of mid-day to objects below,
When, what to my wondering eye should appear.
But a miniature sleigh, and eight tiny reindeer,
I knew in a moment it must be St Nick,
More rapid than eagles his coursers they came,
And he whistled, and shouted, and called them by name:
‘Now Dasher, Now, Dancer! Now Prancer and Vixen!
On, Comet! On Cupid! On Donder and Blitzen!
To the top of the porch! To the top of the wall!
Now dash away! Dash away! Dash away all!
As dry leaves that before the wild hurricane fly,
When they meet with an obstacle, mount to the sky,
So up to the house-top the coursers they flew,
With the sleigh full of toys, and St Nicholas too.
And then in a twinkling I heard on the roof
The prancing and pawing of each little hoof
As I drew in my head and was turning around
Down the chimney, Saint Nicholas can with a bound
He was dressed all in fur from his head to his foot
And his clothes were all tarnished with ashes and soot,
A bundle of toys he had strung on his back.
And he looked like a pedlar just opening his pack.
His eyes – how they twinkled! His dimples how merry!
His cheeks were like roses, his nose like a cherry!
His droll little mouth was drawn up like a bow,
And the beard of his chin was as while as the snow:
The stump of a pipe he held tight in his teeth,
And the smoke it encircled his head like a wreath;
He had a broad face and a little round belly,
That shook, when he laughed like a bowlful of jelly.
He was chubby and plump, a right jolly old elf,
And I laughed when I saw him, in spite of myself;
A wink of his eye and a twist of his head,
Soon gave me to know I had nothing to dread;
He spoke not a word, but went straight to his work,
And filled all the stockings; then turned with a jerk,
And laying his finger aside of his nose,
And giving a nod, up the chimney he rose;
Then he sprang to his sleigh, to his team gave a whistle,
And away they all flew, like the down of a thistle.
But I heard him exclaim, ere he drove out of sight:
‘Happy Christmas to all, and to all a good night.’
Sadly, the poem that found it way into so many nursery books, poetry anthologies,
newspapers and magazines throughout the world did not earn a single dollar for the
composer. But the story does not end there.
The Jolly Santa Claus Myth
The credit for standardizing this new Christmas tradition is given to another American,
Thomas Nast, who was a newspaper cartoonist during the 1860’s. He decided to draw a
series of cartoons for The Harpers Weekly to portray Dr Moore’s image of the saint at
Christmas time. For the first time ever the world was introduced to the jolly robust figure of
Father Christmas dressed in a fur hat, red satin coat trimmed with white ermine, and a pair of
cowhide boots and a wide black belt, delivering his presents down a snow covered chimney
whilst his reindeers stood patiently in front of the sleigh on the rooftop. From America the
image of Santa Claus traveled across the globe, back to Europe and on to South America and
So together the Christmas poem by Dr Moore and the cartoons of Thomas Nast humanized
the jolly, twinkling figure of Father Christmas for so many children all over the world. It can
also be truly said that adults as well as children are indebted to the scholarly poet for his
verses, which evoke so many happy memories of childhood to everyone irrespective of age.
May I wish all Ninnau readers a very merry Christmas and I look forward to sharing more
legends with you in 2001.