Yesterday's Magazette

3 – Two Men Who Brighten Christmas

Two Men Who Brighten Christmas

By Madonna Dries Christensen

When, what to my wondering eyes should appear,

but a miniature sleigh and eight tiny reindeer.

dinghysharpsanta-2

Florence “Dinghy” Sharp and Santa

Can you name those famous reindeer? They were introduced in Clement Clarke Moore’s beloved poem, popularly called The Night Before Christmas. Moore, an Episcopal minister and a professor at the General Theological Seminary in New York City, is said to have been a dour, strait-laced man. Fortunately for us, he had children who needed amusement, particularly the oldest, six-year-old Charity, who was ill with tuberculosis at Christmastime, 1822. Too weak to play with toys, her only request for a gift was for a new story. Moore created his whimsical tale for her.

Moore’s great-great-granddaughter, Florence “Dinghy” Sharp, explains, “We say Papa created the poem because he didn’t write it down that night; he recited it. Years later he gave it a title: An Account Of The Visit From St. Nicholas and published it in a book of his poetry, Poems Of New York. When he was an old man, he finally wrote down the poem. That original copy is in the Smithsonian Institute.”

Dinghy says the inspiration for St. Nick was a woodcutter named Peter, with whom Moore visited when he went to town on Christmas Eve. Peter, a plump, jolly Dutchman with a long white beard, wore a red parka and smoked a stump of a pipe. He enjoyed telling stories about St. Nicholas (Sinte Klasse), who gave gifts to children on his own birthday. Peter, too, gave gifts to children. At Christmastime, he left piles of firewood outside their homes, so they would stay warm.

Moore borrowed the poem’s meter and the reindeers’ names from his friend Washington Irving, who had written about St. Nicholas’s sleigh being pulled by eight goats. Moore also borrowed the idea that St. Nick could disappear up a chimney by “laying a finger aside of his nose.”

Moore refused to publish the verse. He felt it was beneath his dignity as a renowned theology professor, that signing his name to “fiddle-faddle” would harm his reputation. A year later, his cousin secretly wrote down the words as Moore recited them. She sent the verse to the Troy (New York) Sentinel, where it was published anonymously and without a title. When she showed the paper to Moore he was angry, and banned her from his home. The poem was published annually in various publications, without authorship. Because it was in the public domain, neither Moore nor his heirs ever received money for its publication. But that never concerned Moore. What mattered was that the verse had been a gift to his children, and he found it unthinkable that it ever became anything else. In 1848, at his son’s urging, Moore finally admitted ownership.

From Moore’s description of St. Nick, the cartoonist Thomas Nast, in 1881, created for Harper’s Weekly the picture of Santa Claus that we know today. Nast originated the idea that Santa’s home was at the North Pole, that there was a Mrs. Claus, and that Santa’s helpers were elves.

Dinghy Sharp might have stepped from the illustrated pages of her ancestor’s verse. She is white-haired, “lively and quick, a droll little mouth drawn up like a bow….eyes how they twinkle, dimples how merry, cheeks like roses….” Each Christmas season she does about 80 recitations of the poem, in the style handed down in the family. She learned it as a child from her grandfather, who’d been taught by his father, who’d been taught by Professor Moore.

Dinghy happily reports that little Charity did not die as expected in 1822; she lived to age 37. Moore died in 1863, just before his 84th birthday. In her recitations, Dinghy explains terms from the poem which might confuse today’s children. Sugarplums were prunes preserved in raw sugar to keep them from spoiling; they were eaten like candy. Stockings were hung to dry by the fireplace chimney every night after being laundered (people might have only one pair). Because bedrooms were unheated in winter, Momma wore a kerchief to bed and Papa a cap, to keep warm. The windows were shuttered from the inside for added warmth.

Today, as Moore feared, he’s not known as a scholar; he’s known as the man who gave us the timeless poem: The Night Before Christmas. There are disputes about whether or not the verse was actually Moore’s, but like Santa Claus himself, it’s comforting to believe that he did.

A century later, a young man in Chicago added a ninth reindeer to Moore’s flying team, a little creature named Rudolph the Red-nosed Reindeer. The man was Robert Lewis May, an advertising copywriter for Montgomery Ward. In 1939, May’s tale about Rudolph won him $50 in a Ward employee contest for a promotional giveaway item for children.

May was a widower and, like Moore, had a daughter who concerned him, a four-year-old whose legs were crippled. As a child, May had been teased by children because he was small and shy, so he decided on an ugly duckling story about a small bashful, misfit reindeer with a handicap––a glowing nose. Like Charity Moore, May’s daughter, Barbara, loved her father’s story.

Written in the same meter as Moore’s poem, it begins: “Twas the day before Christmas, and all through the hills, the reindeer were playing, enjoying the spills. While every so often they’d stop to call names, at one little deer not allowed in the games. Ha ha! Look at Rudolph! His nose is a sight! It’s red as a beet! Twice as big! Twice as bright.”

Of course, Rudolph had sterling qualities. He was brave, strong, speedy and, most importantly, his nose glowed like a beacon. May called the story, The Day Before Christmas: Rudolph The Red-Nosed Reindeer. Ward executives worried that the red nose might be associated with drunkards and wild Christmas parties, so May asked illustrator Denver Gillen to sketch a picture of Rudolph, and the idea was sold. That year, 2.4 million copies of the booklet were distributed. By 1946, six million copies had been given away. In 1947, Ward gave the poem’s copyright to May, and Rudolph began his journey into American Christmas lore. Sociologists have called Rudolph the only new addition to Santa Claus folklore during the twentieth century.

In 1948, a nine-minute Rudolph film was shown in theaters. In 1949, Rudolph was established as “the most famous reindeer of all,” when songwriter Johnny Marks put the story into words and music. One professional singer after another declined to record it. The man who consented, movie cowboy Gene Autry, was reluctant at first. Like Moore, Autry thought a children’s story didn’t fit his image. But his wife persuaded him, saying, “Everyone loves an underdog.” The song was an instant hit, selling 2 million copies. It is Columbia Records best-seller and second only to Bing Crosby’s White Christmas as the all-time best-selling record. In 1964, Rudolph became a television star, his story narrated by Burl Ives. It’s now shown annually around the world, in countries whose own Christmas lore once enriched the legend of St. Nicholas.

May worked for Montgomery Ward most of life, except for a period when he began overseeing the licensing of Rudolph and related merchandise. Rudolph The Red-Nosed Reindeer Enterprises, Inc. brought financial security to May and his wife and six children. He died in 1976. All his original material is archived at his alma mater, Dartmouth, where a figure of Rudolph stands on the campus.

May wrote a sequel to his well-known verse, called Rudolph Shines Again, but few people are aware of the book. In 1991, May’s daughter, going through her father’s papers, found three versions of another Rudolph story, written in 1947. Now woven into one, Rudolph’s Second Christmas was published in 1992 by Applewood Books, illustrated by Michael Emberley.

Summing up the popularity of his little reindeer, May said, “Everything connected with Rudolph has a touch of miracle about it, a kindly star.” Now more than sixty-years-old, Rudolph “with his nose so bright” leads Moore’s team into still another century. So on Christmas eve, before settling down for a long winter’s nap, go to the window, tear open the shutters, throw up the sash, and find the brightest light in the sky. It’ll be glowing red.

Now, Dasher, now Dancer, now Prancer and Vixen. On Comet, on Cupid, on Donner and Blitzen. Happy Christmas to all and to all a good night.

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