Some early printings of “A Visit from St. Nicholas”

How can we tell how popular a piece was in 19th-century America? By how quickly and how often it was reprinted by editors eager to fill space with a piece they knew readers would enjoy. By that standard, “A Visit from St. Nicholas” was a runaway best seller, reprinted at least five times within three weeks after it first appeared in The Troy Sentinel in 1823 and appearing over 300 times in its first fifty years. Not that Clement Moore necessarily knew that his poem was such a hit: editors weren’t required to get permission before reprinting, and no one knew until 1837 that he had written it.

A study of the reprints is a survey of editorial styles and of typographical errors—and, apparently, of versions. Some editors broke up the poem into quatrains or into sections, with other editors copying them. One sequence in particular has two variations: St. Nick calling to his reindeer. The first version, from the December 23, 1823, Troy Sentinel, reads

“Now! Dasher, now! Dancer, now! Prancer, and Vixen,

“On! Comet, on! Cupid, on! Dunder and Blixem;

“To the top of the porch! to the top of the wall!

“Now dash away! dash away! dash away all!”

With all the exclamation marks, it’s lively and dramatic, especially when thundered aloud. And it’s not retained in every print version: several replace two of the exclamation points in the last line, to more flatly “dash away, dash away, dash away all!” The Rural Repository, in 1836, gives the first two lines different punctuation: “Now, Dasher! now, Dancer! now, Prancer! now, Vixen!/ On, Comet! on, Cupid! on, Dunder and Blixen!” This is the way the lines appear in 1838, in Parley’s Magazine, and in the first chapbook version, in 1848. However, in The New-York Book of Poetry, in 1837, St. Nick commands, “Now, Dasher! now, Dancer! now, Prancer! now, Vixen!/ On! Comet, on! Cupid, on! Donder and Blixen—” and the New York Mirror echoes this slightly less tame urging in December 1837. (Actually, the latter version is more fun to read aloud. But the 1823 version is still the most splendid.)

Other parts of the poem also provides an interesting study of the vagaries of print. Some editors made it into a New Year’s poem. Around 1829, St. Nicholas begins to call “Merry Christmas to all” in some versions of the last line of the poem. Incorporating Moore’s poem into a much longer carrier’s address, “Salma Gundi” preferred his moonlit snow to be “hard packed” instead of “new fallen.” And those reindeer! The 1823 Sentinel version names Dasher, Dancer, Prancer, Vixen, Comet, Cupid, Dunder, and Blixem. (Various scholars have pointed out the similarities between “Dunder” and the Dutch word for “thunder”; and “Blixem” and “bliksem”—lightning.) By 1872, the last two have been named Dunder and Donder; and Blixem, Blixen, Blizen, and Blitzen.

Other aspects of the poem also varied. Sugar plums dance “in,” “through,” “over,” and “at” the heads of the narrator’s sleeping children. Some editors have St. Nicholas whispering instead of whistling as he drives his reindeer. About a third of the versions have St. Nicholas “laying his fingers aside of his nose” in place of “laying his finger aside of his nose.” Notes & Queries has the sleigh mounting “to the top of the stoop,” instead of “to the top of the porch”—and then must define “stoop” for its non-New York readers. In Uncle Ezekiel’s Youth’s Cabinet, instead of his cheeks being like roses, it’s his lips. Breaking the poem into quatrains, the Southern Rose Bud also rewrote the line describing St. Nicholas’ belly shaking like a bowl full of jelly, substituting a description of his “little bright eye.” Why? Unclear, though it’s tempting to think that describing someone’s belly may have struck the editor as vulgar. Saint Nick’s belly completely disappears in some versions in the late 1860s.

Some reprints are amusingly inaccurate: in 1834, the Gloucester Telegraph attributes the stocking-filling to “St. Nichols;” several include a reindeer named “Nixen.” In others, “Dancer” becomes “Lancer.” Legion is the number of reprints with the sleigh and reindeer appearing to the narrator’s “wandering eyes” instead of his “wondering eyes”. John F. Watson misremembers the poem in 1833, lopping off chunks of lines and perhaps giving us a hint of the parts he found most memorable. Because the New-York Evening Post accidentally left out a line in 1828, in copying it The New-England Galaxy and United States Advertiser omitted the same line—and introduced its own generous sprinkling of typographical errors.

To some extent, wording and punctuation stabilized once the poem appeared in The New-York Book of Poetry in 1837. Unexpected italics still broke out (in 1838, the Waldo Patriot italicized two-and-a-half lines describing the scene in Robert Weir’s 1837 painting of “St. Nicholas”; like several other newspapers, the Richmond Whig italicized the reindeers’s names; several papers italicized the last line or printed it in small caps), and typos were still the norm; an editor’s version probably still hinged on which one he was appropriating.

Editors sometimes seem to have taken titling the poem as a personal challenge: it was called “Christmas Eve,” “Christmas Times,” “Santa Claus,” “Visit from Santa Claus,” “The Night Before Christmas,” and “St. Nicholas’ Visit.” By 1849, the poem had become a staple, so when the editor of The New Hampshire Gazette and Republican Union called it “Annual Visit of St. Nicholas,” the title was more than appropriate. In the late 1820s, editors often identified St. Nicholas in the title. After the poem appeared under “A Visit from St Nicholas” in the New-York Book of Poetry, that became the preferred title on many reprintings.

So popular was the poem that in December 1861 it was reprinted in newspapers on both sides of America’s Civil War, by editors aware that young readers expected to see the poem and also aware of the contrast between the frivolity of the poem and the cold reality of war.

This list of early printings is incomplete and is constantly under construction. In many cases I’ve included the name of the periodical from which the version was copied. Instead of transcribing the entire poem again (and again and again … ), where only the introduction is interesting, I’ve included it here. I am obligated to Scott Norsworthy, Pre-1844 Attributions of ‘A Visit from St Nicholas’ to Clement C. Moore, for several additions to the original list.

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