A Visit From St. Nicholas

My grandfather was born in 1902, and as a small child was the recipient of many wonderful postcards, including a sizable collection of Christmas greetings.  At least a third of this set portrays the night before Christmas, and specifically the visit from St. Nicholas.  

When I stand at a bank of Christmas cards today, any box featuring Santa will predictably show a jolly, plump, full-bearded man who is dressed in a red, fur trimmed suit.  When I gaze at the cards sent to little Donald Minor, a variety of images are included, representing the diverse origins of the great saint and his gift-giving tradition.  

Several cards take the St. Nicholas tradition of walking from house to house and add some northern climate changes. This gift-giver must trudge through snow in warm fur robes and heavy fur boots.  He is a rather stern looking old man, lean and weathered. 

Another postcard portrays St. Nicholas delivering gifts from his reindeer drawn sleigh – which remains on the ground.  

The American version of the gift-bearing winter saint was most likely brought to the United States by Dutch settlers in eighteenth century New York.  Sinterklaas – Santa Claus – wore a hat and smoked a pipe as he flew over treetops in his wagon to deliver children’s gifts on Christmas Eve.  *¹  That image was expanded upon in Clement C. Moore’s instant classic, the 1823 poem A Visit from St. Nicholas, and entered the seasonal imagery throughout the Victorian era.  American publishers took advantage of the popularity of this Santa Claus when developing their holiday postcard designs at the turn of the 20th century. 


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 hopes that St. Nicholas soon would be there.

The children were nestled all snug in their beds, while visions of sugarplums danced in their heads; and Mama in her kerchief and I in my cap, had just settled down for a long winter’s nap – when out on the lawn there rose such a clatter, I sprang from my bed to see what was the matter. Away 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  a luster of midday to objects below; when, what to my wondering eyes should appear, but a miniature sleigh and eight tiny reindeer, with a little old driver so lively and quick, I knew in a moment it must be St. Nick.

More rapid than eagles hiscoursers 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 the dry leaves before the wild hurricane fly, when they meet with an obstacle, mount to the sky, so up to the housetop the coursers they flew, with 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 St. Nicholas came 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 flung on his back, and he looked like a peddler 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 on his chin was as white 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 bowl full 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.

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 as he drove out of sight,

“Merry Christmas to all and to all a Good Night!”

This slideshow requires JavaScript.

*¹ Irving, Washington. A History of New York from the Beginning of the World to the End of the Dutch Dynasty. Philadelphia: Lea and Blanchard, 1812. 106-07. accessed on line December 21, 2011.

*²Moore, Clement C. ‘Twas the Night Before Christmas. Philadelphia: Running Press, 1995.

Advent Calendar December 6: Santa’s Secret

I turned the doorknob and fell into our foyer as Brad pulled the front door open with a flourish.

“I SAW AN ELF!” His hands gestured emphatically with each word.  Three year old David jumped up and down by his side yelling, “SANTA! SANTA! SANTA!”

Just that day there had been a heated discussion at the third grade coat rack about Santa’s capabilities, with some friends even whispering that *he might not even exist*.  I greeted my five year old brother’s pronouncement with a little skepticism and a tiny sliver of hope. Just then Richard came in from the bus stop and, upon hearing of the elf, demanded more information–which the preschooler gladly provided.

“The doorbell rang at the BACK door, and Mommy said ‘Who can that be? You need to go answer!’ and I did! There was AN ELF with a red suit and a BIG hat running into the woods! And then I saw the paper in the door! And I opened it and Mommy read it!”

Dashing into the kitchen he grabbed a piece of paper from the table. Though Richard was a competent second grade reader, it was to me, the wise elder one, that the brothers now turned  to read aloud Santa’s secret:

It certainly seemed authentic; the scratchy scrawl was Santa’s writing.  Just last year I had criticized his penmanship only to be reprimanded for not understanding just what all those sub-zero sleigh rides could do to a person’s hands.  So I felt reasonably certain that this note was actually written by the same arthritic hands that had annually tagged our Christmas gifts all my life.

As my mouth stopped reading other mouths started voicing the questions we all shared: Just what gift would be undeliverable by chimney?  Was it too big? Was it alive?  Was it magical? Must it be kept clean and free of soot? Daily speculations led to a long list of possibilities:  a pony, a puppy, a baby sister, a monkey, a Martian, a magic car. No dream was too wild, no hope too irrational to be placed on our list.  WHAT WAS SANTA’S SECRET?????

By Christmas Eve our yellow green house could barely contain the excitement.  I  am certain our parents groaned at the prospect of dealing with our uncontrollable glee all day.  After breakfast we set out to play; “OUTSIDE,” said our mother.  Our lunchtime requests to get started for the airport were met with the logical reminder that it wasn’t that far away.  We would not depart until after dark.  And then we bundled up to play outside once more.

The long shadows of the sinking sun chased us indoors.  A toddler’s voice plaintively cried, “It’s dark. It’s dark.  Let’s go to Santa!”

“Not until you have set the table.”

“Not until you have eaten your supper.”

“Not until the dishes are washed.”

“Let’s get coats on!”

FINALLY.

Four sets of excited hands zipped up car coats and pulled on hats or coat hoods, then out of the house there arose such a clatter! We jostled into our traditional places in the back bench  seat of the car–I got the driver’s side window, Richard got the other window, and  Brad and David squeezed in between us.  No seat belts existed to constrain our joyous wiggles. The windows grew steamy as Daddy inspected the tires’ chains then threw up the garage door.  Finally the car was full and the garage was empty! David stood up on the “hump” that housed the Ford’s drive shaft, clutching the front seat with his tiny hands and singing, “Santa, Santa, Santa!” The soft ching ching ching ching of chains on snowy roads accompanied our caroling as our white sleigh took us closer and closer to our appointment.

Up on the housetop reindeer pause

Out jumps good ol’ Santa Claus

Down through the chimney with lots of toys

“But he can’t get this down the chimney!!!! Will we be there in time? Will he wait?”

Joy to the world, the Lord has come.

Let Earth receive her King!

We sang every carol we had ever learned at home or at school or at church.  Ching, ching, ching, ching. At last up ahead, little lights could be seen.  Not the lights from decorated trees or family-filled homes, THE lights.  Airport lights.  We all sighed deeply as our father parked the car, and our mother opened the doors to release us. Like a swooping flock of Canada geese the family entered the airport’s single, cavernous room.

The clock read 8:05.

I felt a twinge of panic.  My brothers and I surveyed the room.  No Santa inside.

We ran to press our noses up against the glass at the far end, and looked out on an unobstructed view of an empty tarmac.  No sleigh. No elves. No reindeer.

No Santa.

Our disappointment silenced our din.  My mother and father caught up with us. Silently we turned away from the wall of glass, dejected, crushed.  They herded us to the counter, where a man stood ready to hear our family’s monologue: “You see, I saw an elf!” “And he left this letter from Santa!” “And it said to meet him here at 8:00 on Christmas Eve, and we are only five minutes late!”

With a twinkly smile the gentleman put his finger to his nose. “Just a moment,” he said before he walked away.  We were left to squirm, wiggle, tug on parents’ hands, wonder, moan, and squirm some more.  Shortly he returned carrying a box.

“A crate of oranges? Santa asked us here to pick up oranges?” I wondered.

But as the man approached we all realized that this was no ordinary box.  It was closed on all sides, save one, and on that one open side there was a grate.

“Santa told me to make sure the Strickland children got this,” and he set the crate at our feet.

All at once, very gently and carefully, we knelt down to peer inside.  Two chocolaty eyes stared back.  A dark, damp, cold bit of nose sniffed our curious faces and then a little pink tongue darted out to wish us a Merry Christmas.  Eagerly we welcomed our sandy-colored, Cairn terrier puppy, Sir Nicholas of Nottingham–a wild, irrational dream come true!

This story was originally published in this blog December 6, 2010.

Advent Calendar December 6: Santa’s Secret

I turned the doorknob and fell into our foyer as Brad pulled the front door open with a flourish.

“I SAW AN ELF!” His hands gestured emphatically with each word.  Three year old David jumped up and down by his side yelling, “SANTA! SANTA! SANTA!”

Just that day there had been a heated discussion at the third grade coat rack about Santa’s capabilities, with some friends even whispering that *he might not even exist*.  I greeted my five year old brother’s pronouncement with a little skepticism and a tiny sliver of hope. Just then Richard came in from the bus stop and, upon hearing of the elf, demanded more information–which the preschooler gladly provided.

“The doorbell rang at the BACK door, and Mommy said ‘Who can that be? You need to go answer!’ and I did! There was AN ELF with a red suit and a BIG hat running into the woods! And then I saw the paper in the door! And I opened it and Mommy read it!”

Dashing into the kitchen he grabbed a piece of paper from the table. Though Richard was a competent second grade reader, it was to me, the wise elder one, that the brothers now turned  to read aloud Santa’s secret:

It certainly seemed authentic; the scratchy scrawl was Santa’s writing.  Just last year I had criticized his penmanship only to be reprimanded for not understanding just what all those sub-zero sleigh rides could do to a person’s hands.  So I felt reasonably certain that this note was actually written by the same arthritic hands that had annually tagged our Christmas gifts all my life.

As my mouth stopped reading other mouths started voicing the questions we all shared: Just what gift would be undeliverable by chimney?  Was it too big? Was it alive?  Was it magical? Must it be kept clean and free of soot? Daily speculations led to a long list of possibilities:  a pony, a puppy, a baby sister, a monkey, a Martian, a magic car. No dream was too wild, no hope too irrational to be placed on our list.  WHAT WAS SANTA’S SECRET?????

By Christmas Eve our yellow green house could barely contain the excitement.  I  am certain our parents groaned at the prospect of dealing with our uncontrollable glee all day.  After breakfast we set out to play; “OUTSIDE,” said our mother.  Our lunchtime requests to get started for the airport were met with the logical reminder that it wasn’t that far away.  We would not depart until after dark.  And then we bundled up to play outside once more.

The long shadows of the sinking sun chased us indoors.  A toddler’s voice plaintively cried, “It’s dark. It’s dark.  Let’s go to Santa!”

“Not until you have set the table.”

“Not until you have eaten your supper.”

“Not until the dishes are washed.”

“Let’s get coats on!”

FINALLY.

Four sets of excited hands zipped up car coats and pulled on hats or coat hoods, then out of the house there arose such a clatter! We jostled into our traditional places in the back bench  seat of the car–I got the driver’s side window, Richard got the other window, and  Brad and David squeezed in between us.  No seat belts existed to constrain our joyous wiggles. The windows grew steamy as Daddy inspected the tires’ chains then threw up the garage door.  Finally the car was full and the garage was empty! David stood up on the “hump” that housed the Ford’s drive shaft, clutching the front seat with his tiny hands and singing, “Santa, Santa, Santa!” The soft ching ching ching ching of chains on snowy roads accompanied our caroling as our white sleigh took us closer and closer to our appointment.

Up on the housetop reindeer pause

Out jumps good ol’ Santa Claus

Down through the chimney with lots of toys

“But he can’t get this down the chimney!!!! Will we be there in time? Will he wait?”

Joy to the world, the Lord has come.

Let Earth receive her King!

We sang every carol we had ever learned at home or at school or at church.  Ching, ching, ching, ching. At last up ahead, little lights could be seen.  Not the lights from decorated trees or family-filled homes, THE lights.  Airport lights.  We all sighed deeply as our father parked the car, and our mother opened the doors to release us. Like a swooping flock of Canada geese the family entered the airport’s single, cavernous room.

The clock read 8:05.

I felt a twinge of panic.  My brothers and I surveyed the room.  No Santa inside.

We ran to press our noses up against the glass at the far end, and looked out on an unobstructed view of an empty tarmac.  No sleigh. No elves. No reindeer.

No Santa.

Our disappointment silenced our din.  My mother and father caught up with us. Silently we turned away from the wall of glass, dejected, crushed.  They herded us to the counter, where a man stood ready to hear our family’s monologue: “You see, I saw an elf!” “And he left this letter from Santa!” “And it said to meet him here at 8:00 on Christmas Eve, and we are only five minutes late!”

With a twinkly smile the gentleman put his finger to his nose. “Just a moment,” he said before he walked away.  We were left to squirm, wiggle, tug on parents’ hands, wonder, moan, and squirm some more.  Shortly he returned carrying a box.

“A crate of oranges? Santa asked us here to pick up oranges?” I wondered.

But as the man approached we all realized that this was no ordinary box.  It was closed on all sides, save one, and on that one open side there was a grate.

“Santa told me to make sure the Strickland children got this,” and he set the crate at our feet.

All at once, very gently and carefully, we knelt down to peer inside.  Two chocolaty eyes stared back.  A dark, damp, cold bit of nose sniffed our curious faces and then a little pink tongue darted out to wish us a Merry Christmas.  Eagerly we welcomed our sandy-colored, Cairn terrier puppy, Sir Nicholas of Nottingham–a wild, irrational dream come true!

Santa’s real secret that year was more than a gift, it was a way of seeing the giving.  I learned that Santa isn’t up there making a list and checking it twice.  Santa is inside anyone who believes, teaching us each year to stop and listen.  What dreams do you hear?  How can you nurture that wild, irrational hope?  What possibility are you birthing this season? Let me know. I am in the mood to listen….. Ho! Ho! Santa