The American Storybook House, Illustrated
From the Brothers Grimm, from Hans Christian Andersen, stories through which we live. The eponymous Old Mother Goose, the enchanted storybook house, the fairytale house, the bewitched house illustrated in woodcut, in steel engraving, in the watercolors of the clickity old moving pictures, charming and enchanting.
I am certain that you can call to mind Hansel and Gretel, the Gingerbread House, and the grim story of home-cooked cannibalism. Certain that you recall the dark woodland cottage of seven strange dwarfs who sheltered innocent Snow White from a dark, evil witch. And you will remember the well-kempt country cottage of the grieving, ill-used Cinderella. Each of these a cottaged tale of hardship in a menacing world.
Just as certain, I’ll bet you can call to mind a very different kind of Storybook House, the bright and happy house of the night before Christmas, its glowing candles, warm coals, cookies and candies and bow-wrapped presents, a place quite unlike dusty old Europe, unlike the stick-twined African hut, the muddy wattles of Asia, the animal-skin tents of world-wandering peoples.
There is something wholesome in the traditional American Storybook House that will survive Disney’s Progressive debaucheries, something kind and good, a just appreciation of truth, a thing quite different from envious justice. In the traditional, wholesome American story there is verisimilitude, a likeness to Truth whose brightness reveals the creepy things hiding in dank shadows of base political ideologies.
Our Christmas (Christ’s Mass, the eucharistic service) poem, “A Visit from Saint Nicholas” (published, 1823), was composed by a Classive, Clement Clarke Moore* (professor of Greek Literature and the Canonical Bible) on a snow-soft day when riding in a horse-drawn sleigh on his way to and from shopping for Christmas presents.
Professor Moore’s Christmas poem was anonymously submitted by a friend to the Troy Sentinel and was unattributed for many years. Moore, jealously protecting his reputation in scholarly Ancient Languages, did not acknowledge the simple rhyme until his grown children urged the publication of his Poems (1844), two decades after the “Night Before Christmas” became famous.
And there is this, a detail in the formation of our National Character: When Moore composed the poem, Protestants were suspicious of Catholic saints and Catholic holidays, choosing the celebration of secular New Year’s Day over Christmas Day (Christ’s Mass, a typical working day in the Protestant calendar).
You will notice that Moore shifted our attention to presents and Christmas Eve, to a Saint (Saint Nicholas) rather than Christ’s miraculous birth in a manger, a shift that inculcated the generosity of Christ’s ultimate gift into the practice of American life. Yes, Classive scholars know best how to enroot goodness, beauty, and truth.
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A Visit from St. Nicholas,
commonly titled The Night Before Christmas
‘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!”
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* Long after the poem was published, debunkers claimed that Henry Beekman Livingston Jr. was “The Night Before Christmas” author, although Livingston (a patriot soldier, artist and writer) never claimed authorship. No hard, definitive evidence of Livingston’s authorship has been produced.
More images and histories of the American Storybook House can be found at The Beautiful Home.
American Storybook House featured image: “A Friendly Christmas Greeting”
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