In 1823, an anonymous poem titled “A Visit from St. Nicholas” appeared in the pages of the local paper in Troy, New York. It quickly became a proto-viral sensation, reprinted — often with illustrations — in newspapers, magazines, and anthologies around the English-speaking world. Fourteen years later, a man named Clement Clarke Moore — a writer, theologian, and professor of Greek and Asian literature — stepped forth as the author of the poem, by then known under the title “‘Twas the Night Before Christmas,” which he had written for his own children.
Although some scholars continue to debate Moore’s authorship, the legacy of the work itself remains incontestable — hardly any poem in the entire history of the English language has had a more pervasive impact on the intersection of popular culture and commerce, seeding much of the modern Santa Claus mythology and popularizing the Christmas gift-giving tradition.
Nearly two centuries later and three years before the release of his 2009 holiday record Christmas in the Heart, Bob Dylan gave a deliciously Dylanesque performance of “‘Twas the Night Before Christmas” on the first season of his satellite radio show. Please enjoy:
A VISIT FROM ST. NICHOLAS
‘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 sugar-plums danced in their heads;
And mamma in her ‘kerchief, and I in my cap,
Had just settled our brains for a long winter’s nap,
When out on the lawn there arose 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 lustre of midday to objects below,
When what to my wondering eyes did appear,
But a miniature sleigh and eight tiny rein-deer,
With a little old driver so lively and quick,
I knew in a moment he 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, Donner and Blitzen!
To the top of the porch! to the top of the wall!
Now dash away! dash away! dash away all!”
As leaves that 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 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 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 pedler 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, ere he drove out of sight — “Happy Christmas to all, and to all a good night!”
Anatomy of thought at the fault line of invention and discovery.
By Maria Popova
“Mathematical Science,” wrote Ada Lovelace in contemplating the nature of the imagination, “is the language of the unseen relations between things.” Few have mastered that language and transmuted it into Lovelace’s “poetical science” more deftly than the trailblazing English mathematician John Horton Conway, best known for the invention of the 1960s cellular automaton Game of Life.
A fine addition to the best science books of the year, Genius at Play: The Curious Mind of John Horton Conway (public library) by Siobhan Roberts is noteworthy for many reasons, among them the non-negligible fact of being a biography of a living subject — a task generally self-defeating (Susan Sontag famously proclaimed that “no biography makes sense that isn’t written after its subject is dead”) and rarely approached with as much tenacious graciousness as Roberts’s. That the subject is a man of enormous complexity and contradiction, with Richard Feynman’s charisma and Slavoj Žižek’s contrarian edge, only adds to the feat.
Alongside her intense intellectual admiration for Conway’s genius, Roberts becomes a keen observer of the elemental human psychology that bedevils even a mind as superhuman as his. She describes her subject as an “insecure egotist” — a redundant phrase absolutely perfect in its redundancy, for it’s hard to think of an egotist who isn’t at bottom insecure, brimming with what psychoanalysts call “narcissistic vulnerability.”
This paradoxical orientation of self to world comes into play in Conway’s conflicted attitude toward the biography itself. Roberts writes:
He very much cares what other people think, and he worries that a self-portrait might come off as too egotistical. And partly because he’d have a hard time with “the fiction of humility that the conventional autobiographer must at every moment struggle to maintain,” as the occasional biographer Janet Malcolm describes the dilemma. So he’ll stick to doing what he does best. Gnawing on his left index finger with his chipped old British teeth, temporal veins bulging and brow pensively squinched beneath the day before yesterday’s hair, Conway unapologetically whiles away his hours tinkering and thinkering — which is to say he’s ruminating, or maybe he is doing some work, but he’ll insist he’s doing nothing, being lazy, playing games.
For his part, Conway is rather precise about the particular allure of this tinkering and thinkering. Reflecting on the governing rule of Subprime Fibs, one of the innumerable games he invented, he tells Roberts:
I’ll tell you what interests me about this — it’s really what interests me about mathematics. Nobody else in the whole history of the world has been stupid enough to invent this rule. That’s the first thing. But then, if they had, they would find exactly this behavior that I’m finding.
That’s a curious thing about the nature of mathematical existence. This rule hasn’t physically existed in any sense in the world before a month ago, before I invented it, but it sort of intellectually existed forever. There is this abstract world which in some strange sense has existed throughout eternity.
Imagine an uninhabited planet, full of interesting things. You land on it, and it existed for a million years, but no people have ever been there, no sentient beings. There are such places, I’m sure. Go to some remote star and there will be something. But you don’t have to go there. You can sit in this very chair and find something that has existed throughout all of eternity and be the first person to explore it.
Conway arrives at this bewitching intersection of discovery and invention by being at once a naturalist of numbers, an algebraic adventurer, and an unflinching empiricist. Roberts captures the singular spirit of his endeavor:
He turns numbers over, upside down, and inside out, observing how they behave. Why is it that when you pick a number, any number, then double it, add 6, halve it, and take away the number you started with, your answer is always 3? Above all he loves knowledge, and he seeks to know everything about the universe. Conway’s charisma lies in his desire to share his incurable lust for learning, to spread the contagion and the romance. He is dogged and undaunted in explaining the inexplicable, and even when the inexplicable remains so, he leaves his audience elevated, fortified by the failed attempt and feeling somehow in cahoots, privy to the inside dope, satisfied at having flirted with a glimmer of understanding. For his own part, he calls himself a professional nonunderstander. The pursuit is what counts…
This notion, of course, is as central to genius in the sciences as it is in the arts — something Grace Paley articulated beautifully in her advice to aspiring writers. Conway himself examines the cognitive machinery of this essential disposition of nonunderstanding:
In a fundamental way my job is thinking. You can’t see it from the outside. What does the thinking consist of? I think about how to explain whatever I am thinking about to someone. Then I explain it to someone and it doesn’t work. So I think about it some more. I tinker with it, with thinking, until I’ve simplified it. I personally can only understand things after I’ve thought about them for ages and made them very, very simple.
In a sentiment that calls to mind I, Pencil — that brilliant 1958 allegory of the division of knowledge, illustrating how everything is connected — Conway adds:
Most people just understand enough to work. For example, a mechanic doesn’t necessarily understand the physics or engineering of how a car works. I’m not putting down a car mechanic. We need practical people. I’m not sure we need theoretical people. Though I’m not going to campaign for my own abolishment.
In 1964, Margaret Mead — to this day humanity’s most influential anthropologist and one of the first academic celebrities — helped a concerned parent navigate the question of what to tell kids about Santa Claus, offering an elegant distinction between myth and deception, fact and “poetic truth.” Thirteen years later, Mead and Rhoda Metraux — her partner of a quarter-century, a fellow anthropologist and Redbook magazine editor — set out to address the mystery and mystique of Santa not for parents but for children in a wonderfully unusual and clever format: a fictional telephone interview with the jolly gift-giver. (Twenty years later, Kurt Vonnegut would pitch a similar idea to WNYC.)
Dedicated to little Kate — Metraux’s granddaughter and Mead’s goddaughter, “three-going-on-four, just at the age when a small girl’s curiosity and imagination know no bounds and everything she learns leads to more questions” — the interview first appeared in the pages of Redbook in 1977 and was published as An Interview with Santa Claus (public library) for the 1978 holiday season, shortly before Mead’s death at the end of November. This little book, brimming with her characteristic astuteness, cultural insight, and subtle wit, became the legendary anthropologist’s last legacy.
Tucked into the delightful make-believe conversation, illustrated with Victorian engravings and Harper’s drawings by the great cartoonist Thomas Nast, are nuggets of cultural history and anthropology, illustrating how fact and fiction — often, multiple versions of facts and fictions — converge to form our mythology. Mead and Metraux weave together folklore and philosophy into an ennobling secular mythos of generosity, celebrating the spirit of giving.
M & R: Do you have a few minutes for an interview? Children are asking so many questions, and we don’t have the answers.
SANTA: Go ahead. I’ll do my best.
M & R: First, are you one person or many? How can you be in so many places at once?
SANTA: Of course I’m one person. But I belong to a very big clan and a very old one — a clan of givers. As far as I know, our history goes back at least two thousand years, and then maybe much longer, but when you get back that far, it’s all hearsay and tales that are almost like fairy tales.
M & R: Who was your first ancestor you know about for sure? Was he a jolly man just like you?
SANTA: Not at all. He was a very different kind of man — a very famous bishop in the early Christian church in Asia Minor in the fourth century. A very solemn man. Pictures always show him dressed in cloth of gold and looking very stern. But he loved children and young people. Once he secretly gave a bag of gold coins to each of three poor sisters so they would have a dowry and could find husbands.
He performed lots of miracles, too. Once he brought back to life three little boys who’d been chopped up and salted in barrels by a wicked innkeeper. And he calmed a storm and saved a ship at sea. He even appeared in a dream to the great Emperor Constantine to tell him that three of his officials had been falsely accused, and the Emperor had them released from prison. He became a saint, you know — St. Nicholas, they called him — and he was the friend of sailors and travelers and merchants, but especially the friend of children.
M & R: But how did he leave Asia Minor and come to Europe?
SANTA: Well, there are two different stories about that. If you go to Bari, in Italy, they will tell you that when the Turks were laying waste to his home city of Myra in 1084, some merchants brought St. Nicholas’s bones to Bari and built him a wonderful shrine to which pilgrims came — still come — from far and wide. But if you go to Venice, they’ll tell you their merchants rescued his bones in 1100 and built the great Church of St. Nicholas, on the Lido. But who can say which it was? And does it matter? He was a favorite saint for a long, long time. In England before the Reformation there were three hundred and seventy-six churches in his name and hundreds more in Belgium and Holland, France and Italy, and especially in Russia, and in Greece and other places too. Everybody loved that saint, our ancestor, and “Santa Claus” is a version of that ancestor’s name.
M & R: But what in the world did St. Nicholas have to do with Christmas and giving presents?
SANTA: You see, his birthday was in December — the sixth of December, by our calendar today — and people celebrated his birthday with a feast. The night before, children in lots of places put out little bundles of hay for the white horse or the donkey he rode — of course, it was really one of his descendants, one of our clan, who came. And the children put out a shoe or hung up a stocking and the members of my clan were kept busy, I can tell you, filling them up with fruit and candy and little cakes — celebrating by giving presents instead of receiving them. But we had a lot of trouble too.
M & R: How was that?
SANTA: Well, they say that in some places, parents didn’t think children should be given presents just for nothing. They wanted good children to be rewarded and bad children to be punished. So some of our clan had to pretend to be scary creatures that came along with old St. Nick. The most famous, I guess, was Knecht Ruprecht, a frightening being who carried a switch. Another one was called Klaubach, a kind of shaggy monster with horns and fiery eyes and a long red tongue and chains that clattered! There were lots of others, equally fearsome, but I’ve always thought all this was done to impress the grownups. I’ve never heard that children were actually punished or didn’t get their presents. And nowadays we’ve given all that up. All our clan want to be the children’s friend.
After probing Santa about the various permutations of the St. Nicholas myth and the giving traditions around the world, from Russia’s Babushka to the Kings of Florence to the Magi, Mead and Metraux turn to Santa himself and how he came to possess the American popular imagination, touching on elements of Mead’s earlier conversation with James Baldwin about the immigrant experience.
SANTA: Oh, that’s an exciting saga in itself. You know my immediate ancestors came to America with Dutch and German families. We were immigrants. And like all the other immigrants, we developed a whole new life style as we became Americans. For instance, most of us took a new name, Santa Claus — though some people still talk about me as “old St. Nick.” And most of us concentrate on Christmas nowadays, instead of scattering our efforts, so all the children can enjoy getting presents at once.
M & R: And by now you’re an Old American!
SANTA: And a modern one too. Those first pictures of us, about a hundred years ago, seem pretty old-fashioned now. With those reindeer and all that.
M & R: What do you mean? Don’t you still have your reindeer?
SANTA: Oh, yes, but you know, nowadays we have to go so far. At first we just went around different parts of America. But now children everywhere in the world expect Santa Claus to arrive with presents, all at practically the same time. We can’t disappoint children just because they happen to live on the other side of the world. So I — or, rather, we — have to travel in helicopters and airplanes, even sometimes in snowmobiles and in some places in speedboats.
M & R: Then why do you keep the reindeer at all?
SANTA: Oh, the children would be too sad if I gave them up, and I’m very fond of the reindeer myself. Besides, there’s a legend about a man — or maybe he was a god — who is said to have been one of our earliest ancestors. Thor, his name was, and people say that in the Far North, in midwinter, he used to come rushing down on the wind, bringing snow and ice and driving a team of reindeer. I wouldn’t want to forget that, even if maybe it’s only a legend. And I love to hear the reindeer bells. Listen! Can you hear them?
They do hear the bells — except the bells turn out to be the telephone ringing, and the whole conversation with Santa, Mead and Metraux tell the reader, turns out to have been a beautiful dream. (Outside this fictional tale, Mead was not a stranger to arriving at existential insight via dreams — half a century earlier, she had found the meaning of life in a dream.)
This framing becomes the perfect trope for exploring the deeper human truths beneath the cultural mythology, and out of that springs the story’s most heartening message. Mead and Metraux extract the abiding poetic truth from the folkloric fictions:
A dream, yes. But it makes a kind of sense, doesn’t it? Why shouldn’t there be a whole clan of gift-giving figures? Don’t they all, in some way, convey a special message to children? St. Nicholas and St. Lucia and other favorite saints, friends of children, the grandmother figures of Babushka and Befana and others of their kind, Santa Claus in all his different versions, each with a special name, and sometimes the Three Kings and even the old Norse god Thor, coming down into the known world from the unknown North with his reindeer.
All of them have appeared on some day close to the shortest day of the year, when the very sharpness of a cold, barren winter gives promise of spring, so that long ago, in the midst of winter, human hearts rejoiced and were moved to generosity and gaiety, especially for children.
Santa Claus is but the newest of these gift-givers. From him, as from the others, children can learn that giving as well as receiving is joyous, and that the gifts that seem to be given freely by wonderful, benign visitors are tokens of happy care given by mothers and fathers… Giving is itself a kind of thank offering.
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