It may be difficult these days to separate the Christmas season from the rosy-cheeked, white-bearded man with a taste for cookies and milk, but it was actually a poem that offered us the jolly, plump version of Santa Claus known today. On December 23, 1823, a poem called "A Visit from Saint Nicholas" was published anonymously in the Sentinel, the local newspaper of Troy, New York. This piece offered a different take on Santa Claus, a figure who was, until that time, traditionally depicted as a thinner, less-jolly, horse-riding disciplinarian, a combination of mythologies about the British Father Christmas, the Dutch Sinterklaas, and the fourth-century bishop Saint Nicholas of Myra. But the poem in the newspaper painted a different picture: it gave Santa eight reindeer, and even named them; it described a Santa who could magically sneak in and out of homes via chimneys; and it created the venerated, cheerful, chubby icon that is everpresent in holiday cards, movies, television shows, and malls everywhere:
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.
The poem, of course, is now known as "'Twas the Night Before Christmas," after its famous first line. Thirteen years after it was published, Clement Clark Moore took credit for its authorship, though his claim to the poem is now in question. Many believe the poem was actually penned by New York writer Henry Livingston.
That Santa Claus was ever linked to the Christmas holiday is itself remarkable, given that the original Feast of St. Nicholas was historically observed on December 6. The holiday on December 25 is a Christian celebration of the birth of the Christ child, and the images surrounding that event have appealed to poets for centuries. John Milton, for example, described the virgin birth this way in his poem "On the Morning of Christ's Nativity":
It was the winter wild,
While the heaven-born child
All meanly wrapt in the rude manger lies;
Nature, in awe to him,
Had doffed her gaudy trim,
With her great Master so to sympathize:
It was no season then for her
To wanton with the Sun, her lusty Paramour.
Russian poet Joseph Brodsky was so struck by the Christmas season that he wrote a poem for Christmas every year. These poems, now collected in his book Nativity Poems, are concerned not only with the iconography of Christmas, but also its themes: eternity, love, celebration, winter, perfection, sin. W.H. Auden, in his poem "For the Time Being: A Christmas Oratorio," appears more interested in the modern significance of the nativity event:
As in previous years we have seen the actual Vision and failed
To do more than entertain it as an agreeable
Possibility, once again we have sent Him away,
Begging though to remain His disobedient servant,
The promising child who cannot keep His word for long.
Other poets find inspiration in reporting on the general atmosphere and imagery of the holiday season. In Mark Dotyís "Messiah (Christmas Portions)," a community comes together to sing the traditional song, and it is in the merging of literal, even awkward, voices that the poet attempts to capture a facet of the holiday:
Aren't we enlarged
by the scale of what we're able
to desire? Everything,
the choir insists,
inside these wrappings
burns another, brighter life,
by song: hear how
it cascades, in overlapping,
lapidary waves of praise? Still time.
Still time to change.