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Santa Is an Elf
Written February 13, 2001


"'Twas the night before Christmas," begins our most famous holiday poem, which was first published as "A Visit from St. Nicholas" in the Troy, New York, Sentinel of December 23, 1823.

As was the case with most newspaper poetry of the time, the author was not named.  Probably he was 75-year-old Henry Livingston of Poughkeepsie (according to research by Vassar College professor Don Foster in his book Author Unknown).  Later, the poem became popular, and people wondered who had written it.  Thirteen years after the first publication, a magazine editor attributed the poem to a stuffy old cleric from New York City named Clement Clark Moore.  It was not until after another eight years that Moore claimed it as his own in a book of his collected poetry.

Such doubtful attributions are not unknown.  Take an example from the Bible.  The author of the third Gospel and the Acts of the Apostles addresses these two books to someone named "Theophilus," but he doesn't name himself.  Christians in the second century A.D. could tell from reading these books that the author was an educated man who apparently accompanied Paul on part of his travels.  In Paul's letters, they found a reference to such a person, a physician named Luke, so they guessed that he wrote the Acts and that particular Gospel.  With no evidence to the contrary, since then we have called the third Gospel "Luke."

Anyway, regardless of whether Moore or Livingston wrote "The Night Before Christmas," we continue to read it to our children every December, just like Luke's story of the angel visiting the shepherds.  The poem seems to form the foundation of our belief that Santa Claus, riding in a magic flying sleigh pulled by reindeer, comes secretly to each house on Christmas Eve while everyone is sleeping and slides down the chimney (where available) to leave presents.  It is a sort of secular scripture.

But we have turned away from the hallowed words of this poem!  We have ignored what it clearly tells us, and we have substituted other fancies to suit our own purposes!

First, there's the matter of the jolly old man's name.  The poem three times calls him St. Nicholas, once shortening it to St. Nick.  But today we almost never use St. Nicholas, and we use a different shortened version:  Santa Claus, or often just Santa.  (It's almost as if the Virgin Mary, having clearly been told in Isaiah 7:14 that she should name her son Emmanuel, perversely decided to call him Jesus instead.  We must not ignore the scripture!)

Then there's the matter of how St. Nicholas is dressed.  The poem tells us that he is wearing fur from head to foot, and that's how cartoonist Thomas Nast depicted him later in the 19th century.  And it isn't clean fur, either; after sliding down the chimney, "his clothes were all tarnished with ashes and soot."  But around the end of that century, we began to ignore this clear description.  St. Nick's humble furs somehow turned into merely the white fur trim on a garish red velvet suit, worn with a wide leather belt and boots.  Some have alleged that he began wearing red as part of an advertisement for Coca-Cola, although I can't imagine that we could allow commercialism to corrupt our core beliefs so crassly.

In the poem, St. Nicholas smokes a pipe.  When have you seen Santa Claus with a pipe lately?  Who took it away?  In a misguided attempt to protect our children from the evils of tobacco, have we simply written the pipe out of the story?

But most importantly, St. Nicholas is not assisted by elves who work at a toy workshop at the North Pole.  St. Nicholas is an elf himself!  I'd guess him to be only a few inches high.

The poem clearly calls him a "right jolly old elf."  He has a "droll little mouth."  His "little round belly" is compared not to a tub full of jelly but to a mere bowl.  He is the little old driver of a miniature sleigh pulled by tiny reindeer with little hooves.  They do not make a landing on the roof like a cargo airplane; rather, they approach the house over the snow-covered fields, then swoop up to the roof, as light as wind-blown dry leaves or the down of a thistle.

But an elfin St. Nicholas in a toy-like sleigh, while charming in a poem, would never work in the retail world.  We need a sleigh large enough to be the final float in the Macy's parade.  We need a full-sized Santa Claus on whose lap the children can list the merchandise that will be required to make them happy on Christmas morning.

Therefore, though we continue to recite the words that recognize St. Nicholas as a tiny elf, we ignore their clear meaning.  The words are there, but our eyes somehow do not see them.

It is at our peril that we thus disrespect the teachings of our secular scripture.  We are dangerously close to treating our Holy Scripture the same way.

Someday we may ignore the Bible's words.  It clearly says, among many other things, that women in church are to keep their hats on (I Corinthians 11:5) and their mouths shut (I Timothy 2:12); that we should sell all our toys and possessions and give the money to the poor (Matthew 19:21); and that children who hit or curse their parents are to be executed (Exodus 21:15, 17).

But we have moved on, and our eyes no longer see what is written.



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