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200 Years of Twas the Night – Podcast #185

Twas the Night Before Christmas: Edited by Santa Claus for the Benefit of Children of the 21st Century by Clement C. Moore (Author), Pam McColl (Editor), Elena Almazova (Illustrator), Vitaly Shvarov (Illustrator)

Please note that the text below is an automated transcription. As a result, it may contain errors.

Steve Silverman 00:00:01

So, Pamela, thanks for joining me here today on the podcast.

Pamela McColl 00:00:03

Lovely to be here.

Steve Silverman 00:00:05

I have to say this is an amazing book. It really was incredible. And the first thing I have to say is that it’s kind of a twofold book. I mean, the pictures, the images are incredible. You can really just put this down on a coffee table and just spend an hour looking at all the images and it’s just that incredible. But at the same time, it’s rich in history and rich, and it’s clearly been a well-researched book. So if you really want to sit down and read something, it’s just an amazing… I just want to congratulate you on such an incredible book.

Pamela McColl 00:00:36

Thank you so much. That’s lovely.

Steve Silverman 00:00:37

I should also add that it got five stars on Indie Reader, which is quite rare.

Pamela McColl 00:00:42

And then it got a really good Kirkus review, which means the world to me. And in the review, it mentioned that they appreciated the organization of it, which took a long time, as you can tell.

Steve Silverman 00:00:52

Yeah. And I have to mention that you spent ten years working on this book, is that correct?

Pamela McColl 00:00:57

I did, because some of it involved traveling. I had to go to New York, I had to go to Oklahoma and look at archives and collections. So that took a lot of time.

Steve Silverman 00:01:06

Yeah. I assume you didn’t do it consistently. It wasn’t like every day. You did when things popped up or did you work on it every day for ten years?

Pamela McColl 00:01:13

No, not every day for ten years, but certainly the last two years of my life were consumed by it.

Steve Silverman 00:01:18

Now, how did you get interested in this?

Pamela McColl 00:01:22

Well, I knew it was turning 200, the poem Twas the Night Before Christmas, on Christmas Eve of 1822 to 2022. And I just thought it would be a great project because I knew there was a lot of art associated with it, a lot of illustration, and of course, literary history of it. And I just thought it would be a fun thing to do. And I’ve loved it.

Steve Silverman 00:01:41

Yes. I have to be honest, I never read the poem in its entirety before. I knew the beginning, I knew the ending, but I had never read the whole thing. I really enjoyed it. I can see why people love it. And I should also add that you had a previous book that came out on this, so why don’t you talk about that?

Pamela McColl 00:01:57

Sure. In 2012, I took out the smoking and the pipe out of the poem for the first time. I don’t think anyone had ever done it before, and it caused a media sensation. Stephen Colbert and everybody else got involved in that conversation, and the American Library Association took offense with it. But it wasn’t censorship, it was an edit, and I stand by it.

Steve Silverman 00:02:17

Which kind of surprised me when I read that, because this is a poem that’s been edited over and over and over again throughout time. Even the original publication in the Troy Sentinel, which would have happened a year after it was written in 1823, they had edits to it, is that correct?

Pamela McColl 00:02:33

Correct. And the Happy Christmas at the end turns to Merry Christmas in 1828. So I don’t know why they took it upon themselves to take me out for making an edit. And they certainly didn’t criticize Paul McCartney for taking the turkey out of The Christmas Song because he’s a vegetarian. I mean, they just chose me.

Steve Silverman 00:02:50

Yeah, I’m just going to guess here that probably sold more copies of the book. Sometimes getting publicity actually increases sales.

Pamela McColl 00:02:57

It was enormous. And the book is now ten years old and it’s still in the top 25 books sold on Amazon.com under the category of American Poetry.

Steve Silverman 00:03:05

Wow.

Pamela McColl 00:03:06

Not bad. Eh?

Steve Silverman 00:03:07

Yeah, that’s really good. I’m quite envious. I’d love for one of my books to be like that. I just want to read the following from your book. It says, “The following is a 264-page footnote to the classic Christmas poem Twas the Night, considered to be the most read, most often recited poem in the library of English literature with the poem’s jolly Saint Nick, the most influential fictional character of all time.” Now, a couple of things about this is one, you say this is a footnote. This is an incredibly well-researched book. So it really is an amazing read. And what I liked about it is you don’t have to read it from cover to cover. You can just pick a portion of it and read that. If you want to know the history of St. Nicholas or you want to turn to the chapter on the poem itself and so on, you can just do that and not read the whole rest of the book. But you don’t have to read any of it. That’s the amazing part. It’s just so spectacular to look at. But the other thing is that it’s the most read, most often recited poem. That’s pretty amazing.

Pamela McColl 00:04:02

I know. And it’s also the most collected and the most published.

Steve Silverman 00:04:06

Wow.

Pamela McColl 00:04:06

Most republished. There’s about 2000 editions of it in book form. And then you have to add in all the newspapers and all the magazines and the tea towels. And everything else is printed on. It goes on for.

Steve Silverman 00:04:17

Which is why I only know the beginning part Twas The Night Before Christmas. Because it is everywhere. You really can’t get away from it. But as I said, it is a really beautiful poem. Now, this isn’t the first poem on Christmas, obviously. So what makes this one so unique?

Pamela McColl 00:04:36

Well, it’s considered a masterpiece of juvenile fiction because it’s so well written, it’s easy to remember, it’s jolly, it’s merry, but it’s also kind. There’s no birchen rod, there’s no naughty or nice, there’s no threat of punishment. There’s actually a specific language says that there’s nothing to dread. And I think children really enjoy that because the poems that came before this, which talk about St. Nicholas, especially The Children’s Friend in 1821. You know, he comes with a sleigh with a reindeer and bringing books, not other toys, but he also brings the threat of being beaten up.

Steve Silverman 00:05:09

Yes. I was actually surprised to read that because I don’t really know the history of it. You know that basically he was judging children and showing up, as you said, with a birchen rod to beat kids that were bad.

Pamela McColl 00:05:23

And that aspect of it comes back into the story not through the poem but through the works of people like Thomas Nast who started to talk about naughty or nice or Mark Twain who writes a letter to his daughter and mentions the naughty or nice. And I was just at the Mark Twain Museum in Hartford and on the hearth, there are two footprints and they’ve been there since the Twains lived there. And it’s to remind his children to be good all year. That’s the concept. Right? But the poem was written by Clement C. Moore in 1822. His father was the bishop of the Diocese of New York and he was Christian. And it’s a Christian concept to be nonjudgmental. And I think that includes children. So he had eight children. At the time he wrote it he had six. And so I think this aspect of the kindness and the inclusiveness of this poem is not only endearing but it’s made it survive 200 years. I can’t imagine the tradition of reading it from the White House, which started in 1953 with Beth Truman, carrying on if it carried this concept of punishment.

Steve Silverman 00:06:26

Yeah. I was actually surprised that he wrote this and then just shortly after that, his wife died.

Pamela McColl 00:06:31

Yes. And two of his children.

Steve Silverman 00:06:32

Well, I didn’t realize the children had died also.

Pamela McColl 00:06:34

Yes, two children died, but in that day and age. Right? Medicine. And the woman had nine children. And she was young, in her 30s, so she went through a lot. But they had a great marriage. They certainly did. And I know Moore enjoyed his children. He never remarried and he took them on holiday to Saratoga Springs and wrote a poem about it. So he was a loving grandfather and father for the rest of his life.

Saint Nicholas by Jaroslav Čermák.
Saint Nicholas by Jaroslav Čermák. (Wikipedia image.)

Steve Silverman 00:06:58

So the beginning of this book kind of goes into the history of how this came about. And you do a discussion about St. Nicholas and a holiday called Saturnalia. Why don’t you explain that?

Pamela McColl 00:07:08

Sure. Well, St. Nicholas was a saint during the Roman Empire time in the third and fourth century. And he did this wonderful act one night of throwing gold coins through a window anonymously, to help a young woman, which actually two sisters who were being at risk of being placed into slavery or prostitution because the father didn’t have any money. And so this is a legend of St. Nicholas that really this poem is based on. And it comes from the 3rd, 4th century. So that’s pretty incredible. When working on this book, I had to follow culture all the way through from the Roman Empire into America. So you can imagine the amount of work it took to do that and to bring this poem and the legend of St. Nicholas along together, and the development of Christmas. And you asked about Saturnalia.  I mean Saturnalia; The Romans celebrated winter festival in a very large way. They decorated their homes with greenery. They had pageants and everybody they reversed roles, too. They had roll reversal where no one was a slave for the day. They actually managed the city. It was really interesting. Lots of drinking. Lots of feasting. But what happened in New York in 1822 was that there was a lot of Saturnalia behavior going on. There were a lot of guns, a lot of violence, a lot of murder. It was a really dangerous time. And so this poem came along in a period where you had people like John Pintard and Picard and other people who wanted to bring it into the home, the Christmas celebration. They also wanted to be inclusive of different religious faiths. And so this poem really facilitated that and brought Christmas into the home of the American family.

John Pintard (May 18, 1759 – June 21, 1844)
John Pintard (May 18, 1759 – June 21, 1844). Wikipedia image.

Steve Silverman 00:08:51

Yeah, one of the things, I mean, there’s a lot of great things in this book, but I think the one thing that really jumped out at me is that in New England, prior to the late 1700s, there really wasn’t much in the way of Christmas celebration.

Pamela McColl 00:09:05

No, not at all. And actually, a lot of Puritans banned any kind of observance of Christmas. And those who did, participate and did it behind closed doors.

Steve Silverman 00:09:17

I mean, I couldn’t help but think, and I try and stay out of politics and I will leave my opinion out of this, but you know, this whole idea that we need to go back to how Christmas was celebrated back then, and I’m reading this and finding out, no, it wasn’t even celebrated. So it just kind of left me with that question in my head, you know, what are we going back to? But, you know, I just was really shocked to find out that they really weren’t celebrating Christmas. And it wasn’t until this poem came along, also Washington Irving.  Basically the period, say from about 1820 to 1840, 1850, that really set in stone all the traditions we have of Christmas Day. Is that correct?

Pamela McColl 00:09:58

Yes. Well, Washington Irving wrote Knickerbocker in 1809, and he mentioned St. Nicholas 25 times, including having him flying over the houses of Manhattan in a wagon. So a lot of people do credit Washington Irving with a lot of this, and he introduced Knickerbocker at the St. Nicholas Dinner. Washington Irving was certainly conscious of St. Nicholas and was interested in having him have a prominent place in the city of New York.

Steve Silverman 00:10:24

I guess we should quickly mention, for those who don’t know: his most famous works, Washington Irving’s most famous works would be Rip Van Winkle and The Legend of Sleepy Hollow, which most people are familiar with.

Pamela McColl 00:10:34

They are. But they also need to remember that he wrote a lot about Christmas. It’s just wonderful. And also highly influential because Washington Irving was very much revered by Charles Dickens. And when you read Christmas Carol and you read the old Christmas by Washington Irving, you see it. You see it immediately that the influence is there. But when you go even further and you go to Sir Walter Scott, who Washington Irving visits at Abbotsford, you see the connection between Washington Irving’s writing of Christmas and Sir Walter Scott. And so it’s really fun. And this is why it took me so long to write this book because I went from Dickens to Washington Irving to Walter Scott and put that all together. And I also read a lot about the men themselves and their lives and that really added a lot to the research for me because I could put these people in context as their relationships and friendships. And I found that, I guess the most rewarding part of the research.

Steve Silverman 00:11:32

As I’m reading this book, all I can think is there are all these rabbit holes you could have gone down. As you read about this person, you could just go off and start researching this person and that person and this story and that story. And the fact that you’re able to pull it all together without ending up down one of those rabbit holes is pretty amazing.

Pamela McColl 00:11:48

I went down a lot of rabbit holes. I really did. I really did. I know a lot more than is in my book.

Steve Silverman 00:11:55

Yeah, I find that when I do my research that, you know, sometimes I start out with one thing and it leads me off in a totally different direction. At the end of the day, I’m like, holy cow, I didn’t even do any of that.

Pamela McColl 00:12:04

Like, Lady Holland, who lives in Kensington, is Clement C. Moore’s first cousin. I spent a great deal of time with her because she held literary soirees and she introduced Charles Dickens to Samuel Rogers, and you just go down these paths and then you read all about her life and it was wonderful. She was really something.

The Night Before Christmas with illustrations by  J.C. Chase. 1899.
The Night Before Christmas with illustrations by  J.C. Chase. 1899. Library of Congress image.

Steve Silverman 00:12:26

Yeah, the one thing I was – I mean, there’s a lot of things – but one thing that stood out to me is how interrelated all these people were. Everybody was related somehow, the second cousin, this person to this person. But they were almost all affluent in some way. So the affluent married the affluent and everybody’s related to everybody.

Pamela McColl 00:12:44

Yes, they are. And one of the things that was really interesting was I was invited to speak at the Mayflower Society and I went there but I was trying to find the connections between Clement C. Moore and the Moore family and the Mayflower. And I did. I found it. It took me over the weekend doing some genealogy work, and I was able to do that. But one of the really interesting pieces of this was that the Puritans were avid readers, and they very strongly believed that women should read as well. And so I don’t think a lot of people understand or know that the first two published authors from America were women.

Steve Silverman 00:13:13

Wow.

Pamela McColl 00:13:13

I find that really interesting. And so when you come to this poem, you find a lot of literature in the Knickerbockers as well. You find women. And I think that’s great.

Steve Silverman 00:13:23

Yes. I find that surprising, actually. When you taught history, you just think men, men, men. And to know that women were so heavily involved in the literary world, it’s actually quite nice to hear.

Pamela McColl 00:13:38

From the Puritans. Of all of their maybe their piety and their overreach, that is the legacy that comes through. And you have these great writers like Harriet Beecher Stowe, everybody else coming up through this, and Louisa May Alcott. All these women, very, very famous American women. And I also see it in art, not from the Puritans, but there’s a huge art tradition in women, too, in this country, early.

Steve Silverman 00:14:01

I think for some reason, history tends to focus on the men. I hope that’s changing. But, you know, I just remember going through school and hearing about this guy and this guy and this guy, but you never hear about the contributions women had.  You know?

Pamela McColl 00:14:13

That’s true. And I think that when I was researching this, I found some of the greatest writing about Christmas was written by women. I mean, Susan Fennimore Cooper. Rural Hours. 1850, 1851. Wonderful stuff. It gives us a very valuable sort of inlook into the background of people in that era. But it also shows an early naturalist along the veins of Walden. So you’re an important person for sure.

1862: A Visit From Saint Nicholas with drawings by F.O.C. Darley. A full scan of the book can be found at Library of Congress.

Steve Silverman 00:14:39

Yeah. Even going through your book, not just what was written, but some of the artwork by some of the women. It’s just really incredible. Even the cover.

Pamela McColl 00:14:47

That’s right. The interesting thing about illustration in America was that it was. The father of American illustration is considered to be F.O.C. Darley, who did the first edition of this poem in 1862. His first edition of this poem in 1862. It’s the edition that Teddy Roosevelt read when he was four years of age, which I find really fun. But through the Golden Age, which starts in the 1880s, you have a large body of work done by women, because Howard Pyle, who was at the Drexel Institute, stipified that half of his class had to be women.

Steve Silverman 00:15:19

Wow.

Pamela McColl 00:15:20

And so you get the great Jessie Willcox Smith out of that. You get Gertrude Kay, you get these wonderful illustrators. But illustration was an accepted career path for a woman. They’d come up through the fashion illustrations and magazines where they hand-tinted, and they were sort of primed. And then, because of Howard Pyle, and other people, they were able to be educated. And then they became very successful. And I think that’s wonderful. And they were very accepted. So you also had, I was mentioning yesterday that I’d been up at Richfield and I’d come across Ellen Clapsaddle‘s work who was a major Christmas postcard artist. And there again. I read something that said that it was unusual for a woman. It wasn’t unusual for a woman to be in the arts at that point.

Steve Silverman 00:16:07

So before we get into the debate about who wrote the poem, let’s talk a little bit about Clement Clarke Moore: who he was, and how he got his money, and just a general overview of him. Why don’t you start with that?

c1912 illustration by Jessie Willcox Smith.
c1912 illustration by Jessie Willcox Smith. From the book Twas the Night Before Christmas.

Pamela McColl 00:16:23

Well, Clement C. Moore was born in Manhattan into a wealthy family. His mother’s family, the Clarkes, had owned a great deal of property. They actually owned all of Chelsea in New York. And his Moore side of the family had come up with money through the Newton apple plantation or fields they had. They were the ones that introduced Newton apples. And he was a very educated man. He went to Columbia. Graduated. He was a valedictorian. He wrote a speech called Gratitude, which we can’t find. And I was really trying to find that because I would love to read that speech. And the archivist at Columbia University could not find it either. But we’re still looking for that. I think that would be a really great thing to read. So he was a generous man. He gave all the land for the building of the General Theological Seminary in New York, where it still is there. And if you are in New York, it’s wonderful to go into the chapel. It’s beautiful. And the Highland Hotel is on the corner of this piece of property. And he had a great love. His wife, Catherine Elizabeth Taylor Moore, and they had nine children, and they lived there. He never remarried, and he wrote other poetry. He put out a book of poetry in 1844, including this poem. And he lived to be an older grandfather and dies in Newport in 1863. And he has a funeral there, but there’s no obituary in the newspapers in New York because it’s the week of the draft riots, the most deadly riots in American history. And it’s noticed a few weeks later. And someone says, we’ve lost a great person in our society, and let’s not forget. So an interesting time. He was born at the end of the American Revolution and he dies at the end of the American Civil War. So you can imagine his lifespan, how interesting it was.

Steve Silverman 00:18:10

Yeah. I was just commenting to my wife the other night that if you happen to die on a day when nothing’s going on, you’ll be front-page news. But on the other hand, if you die when there’s a war or something going on, no one will even notice that you passed on.

Pamela McColl 00:18:25

Exactly. That’s what happened with Moore. But somebody did actually pick up on it and say, we’ve missed this.

Steve Silverman 00:18:30

Yeah, that came up the other night. Because Irene Cara, she had two really big hits in the 80s: Flashdance and Fame. And she passed on. And she was a moderate star, I would say, but because there was nothing else going on in the news, she was big news that night. On the other hand, if something huge was going on in the world at that point, I think it would have kind of gotten buried or she would have gotten a 30-second mention.

Pamela McColl 00:18:56

Something. Right? So the home Chelsea house or home in New Yor,k it was thrown into the river in 1850. It was torn down.

Steve Silverman 00:18:56

I read that.

“Chelsea”, drawn by a daughter of Clement Clarke Moore. (Wikipedia image.)

Pamela McColl 00:18:56

Which is really unfortunate. So there is no museum for Clement C. Moore. There’s no statue of Clement C. Moore. And I always say it’s sort of funny. There’s a statue of Mother Goose in the middle of Central Park but there is no one for Clement C. Moore, the poet of Christmas Eve who wrote, as we’ve said, the most famous poem in the library of English literature. So I think that that’s kind of unfortunate.

Steve Silverman 00:19:27

So why don’t you just quickly tell the story of how he supposedly wrote the poem. I mean, I know people are questioning it and whatever else, but what’s the general accepted story of what happened?

Pamela McColl 00:19:38

The story of how it was written comes from some writings from some of his family and from fictional accounts that it was a Christmas Eve. It was snowing. We know it was snowing because we can look up weather reports. This is factually correct. There was snow. And he gets in his sleigh and he goes out to pick up a turkey to put it in a charity basket because they are missing one. Comes home and he runs up to his study and he writes this poem on a desk. And then he comes down to the living room and presents it to his family, his children and his mother Charity, and his wife who were there. And that is the myth that he was just struck by the light, the snow, and the stars, and the jingle bells on this wintry sleigh ride and comes dashing in and does this. It’s charming. It’s lovely. And we do not know if that’s correct. I mean, one of the things that Moore does is he writes the poem out four times in his lifetime and later on in life and signs them on request of different museums and places. And in one of them he writes, ‘This was written a long time ago. I don’t remember when.’ And if he only had stuck with the written a long time ago period and not put in I don’t remember when, the conspiracy theorists might not have so much to go on.

Steve Silverman 00:21:06

You know, the story is very charming. But the first thing that popped out of my head is this is a fairly wealthy man. I just can’t imagine him going out to get the turkey on Christmas Eve. You think you’d have a servant or a helper someone who would go out and do that for you. It sounds great. But I think there’s a little bit of truth and a little bit of fiction in there at the same time to kind of make it sound really good.

Pamela McColl 00:21:30

The other interesting aspect is that I read his will. I called the will up, and he had three desks. We know two of them. One’s in the Newport Historical Museum and the other one is in the New York Historical Society. So they both claim it was written on the desk. But I don’t think he wrote on three desks and we don’t know where the third desk is. So it’s kind of interesting. And, you know, when you look at where, you know, the people who take claim to Moore, it’s fun because you have Newport, he dies there. He had a home there called The Cedars. It’s still there. You have his desk. So it’s a legitimate tie to this. Certainly the New York Historical Society because of Manhattan. And then you have Troy, of course, has a huge piece with Clement C. Moore.

The Cedars, Clement C. Moore's home in Newport, Rhode Island.
The Cedars, Clement C. Moore’s home in Newport, Rhode Island. (Wikimapia image.)

Steve Silverman 00:22:16

Okay. It kind of reminds me of Washington slept here, you know, with having different desks. And which one did he write it at? It could have been he wrote it at none of them, you know, because it wouldn’t be like I wrote at this desk and he carved his name into it, you know.

Pamela McColl 00:22:30

But the interesting thing about the New York Historical Society desk is when you go there, you see a plaque and it says that Moore donated this or bequeathed it to Harriet Butler. Now, Harriet Butler comes into the story about how it went from the Moore household to Troy. The theory is that she read it in the home in the family album sitting in the front hall, or heard it being recited, and then traveled back to Troy and gave it to Orville Holley. We think that more likely she gave it to Sarah Sackett of Troy, who gave it to Orville Holley.

Steve Silverman 00:23:05

And we should mention Orville Holley. He was the editor of The Troy Sentinel. Is that correct?

Pamela McColl 00:23:10

That’s right. He’s the editor of Troy Sentinel. And I think he deserves a great deal of credit because he decided and recognized how great it was and put it on page four. So it is likely that the poetry section had already gone to press but he found a spot for it and he wrote a glowing preface. And the preface has followed the poem around. So when it was picked up by other newspapers and almanacs closely after the preface by Orville Holley follows with it. Which is wonderful. When you look at this poem and all the publications its been in, one of the most intriguing aspects of the era is the Civil War. Because it was printed on both sides of the conflict. But the editorials changed and they politicized it. They talk about those darn Yankees. And it’s really interesting to read how they use the poem to sort of for their own position.

Steve Silverman 00:24:00

And you did talk about that in the book.

Pamela McColl 00:24:01

Yes, I do, because I found the Civil War chapter was one of my favorites to work on. It was a hard chapter to work on, but also really interesting.

Orville Holley's preface to the original publication of the poem in the Troy Sentinel on December 23, 1823.
Orville Holley’s preface to the original publication of the poem in the Troy Sentinel on December 23, 1823. (Personal photo taken in 2014. Click on image to enlarge.)

Steve Silverman 00:24:10

Yeah, I find I try to limit my research from about 1890 forward. I find reading newspapers too far back very difficult. A) there’s not a lot of information out there, and B) you’re not quite sure how accurate things are. There’s a lot of things written just to sell papers.

Pamela McColl 00:24:30

That’s right. But you also, when you go back and collect the old newspapers and magazines, you come across amazing art. That was one of the things I really enjoyed doing as well, is finding these images that are in my book that no one has seen for a very long time, or very few people have. And getting them out there in the public again gives you the experience of what these papers really were like to read and to look at.

Steve Silverman 00:24:53

And this was the only way people got information. There was no TV, no radio. This was it.

Pamela McColl 00:24:58

That’s right. Until trains came along, too. It was by stagecoach. So they didn’t even have a lot of publications because it was really heavy to move all these things around. So when you have the development of rail and publications become printable and everything else, it really takes off.

Steve Silverman 00:25:14

Yes. I wrote a story for my latest book. It’s about this guy. He decided to push a wheelbarrow across America. Oddly, he started not too far from here in Albany, New York. It was just on a bet. Someone bet him they bet him a certain amount of money if he pushed his wheelbarrow all the way to San Francisco, and he did it. But as I’m reading through all the old newspapers, news traveled so slowly that people it was hard to know where he was at any one time because sometimes it would be printed in the paper weeks after he had left the place. So I had to kind of work through and figure out what the timeline was. There was no way he went out west and then headed back east. So you’re right. News traveled very, very slowly. And today, of course, it’s instantaneous. It pops up on your phone in 2 seconds if something goes wrong.

Cover of the 1864 Louis Prang edition of A Visit From St. Nicholas.
Cover of the 1864 Louis Prang edition of A Visit From St. Nicholas. The complete story can be found on the Internet Archive.

Pamela McColl 00:26:03

And the other thing that’s really interesting is the case of Jonathan Odell, which I write about in my book, and the forgeries of signatures. I mean, George Washington. I found this letter in the Library of Congress that George Washington wrote giving Jonathan Odell free passage for life. And he was a spy. And James Fenimore Cooper, of course, writes the book The Spy based on this whole concept of disguise and phony papers because you couldn’t authenticate anything. It’s like it wasn’t that hard to be a spy with phony papers because no one could check it out.

Steve Silverman 00:26:37

Right. Yeah, definitely. So let’s get a little bit into the controversy about who wrote this. Most people say Clement Clarke Moore wrote it. Then there are others that claim that Henry Livingston Jr. was the one who wrote it. So why don’t you just go into that a little bit?

Pamela McColl 00:26:51

Well, in the preface of my own book, I say that one is wise to refer to Benjamin Franklin and the idea of modest dividends. That one does not become emphatic about an opinion if one doesn’t have all of the facts in front of them. And so I think that with the case of who wrote this poem, that’s my position. That we have evidence of more saying he wrote it. We have him defending that he wrote it in a newspaper. When somebodyacredits somebody else to the piece, he writes the letter to the editor and says, no, it was mine. We have him signing documents saying it was his. We have him including it in his book of poetry in 1844. So there’s some evidence. There’s also the Troy Sentinel from 1823, and so that corresponds with the legend of the story of 1822 and having been written. We also have the 1824 version written by his godfather’s daughter, which is the earliest handwritten edition we have of the poem, Mary Odell. And so we have all of that. But on the side of the Livingston family, who say that it was Henry Livingston, we have very little, if nothing. It’s conjecture, you know. And so I think until we have hard evidence, which would be an earlier newspaper, and I know that the city of Troy hopes that it never because it would blow their great big link to this. I think it is Troy’s, I think it is Orville Holley, and I think it is the Troy Sentinel. With everything being digitalized now, and there’s been a lot of people, a lot of sleuths like myself looking for this for 10 or 20 years. And I think that it’s probably going to be Moore’s forever based on what we have. But it’s been shocking that there haven’t been more journals or memoirs or letters found that these people, as you said, everybody knew everybody. And it’s fascinating that somebody didn’t write about this poem.

Steve Silverman 00:28:45

Sure.

Pamela McColl 00:28:45

And say, hey, I just heard this great poem, or thanks for sending it over to me, or, oh, look what Uncle Clement has. There’s nothing. Washington Irving doesn’t talk about it. Dickens doesn’t talk about it. It’s really interesting.

Steve Silverman 00:28:59

So the poem was written 200 years ago this year, and the following year was published in the Troy Sentinel, which we believe is the first time. And then it spread like wildfire within months. It was in many, many other papers. So clearly that was the catalyst for it, which kind of suggests, or at least gives a hint, that that was the first time it was published.

Pamela McColl 00:29:19

Well, I think you’re right, because if it had been published in 1808 and written by Henry Livingston, would it not have set fire as well?

Steve Silverman 00:29:28

Right, although there are songs. It’s the only example I can think of is that there are songs that are written that don’t catch on the first time, and then some reason, years later, all of a sudden, someone else sings it or whatever, and it explodes at that point. But I don’t know if that’s really a good analogy.

Visit Of St Nicholas, illustrated by Thomas Nast, circa 1874.
Visit Of St Nicholas, illustrated by Thomas Nast, circa 1874. The complete book is available on the Internet Archive.

Pamela McColl 00:29:28

No, it is. It’s possible. I mean, they just found a couple of years ago, a poem written by Sir Walter Scott that no one had ever seen before. So things do come to light, and I think the more digitalization that we have, the more chance there is we will find something. But it was really tempting when I was working on my book to go down the literary sleuthing paths and the rabbit hole, and I had to be very careful because you could be consumed by it. It’s very, very interesting, and you’d love to be the person that found it, but I just had to stay focused. And I really enjoyed Clement C. Moore so much, and no one’s ever written a full-length biography on the man, and I just thought, I’m going to stay here because I believe he’s an interesting enough character to write about, and let’s give him the credit until we know otherwise.

Steve Silverman 00:30:40

Yeah. The two things that, you mentioned other little things throughout the book, but the two things that really stand out as to why Livingston may have been the author was one that supposedly after he died, they found a manuscript of the poem in his desk, but then it burned up in a fire and we spoke before we started recording. And what was your comment on that?

Pamela McColl 00:31:00

Well, I think they find a newspaper in his desk and it had been published. He dies after the poem was published. He died in 1828. So it could very well have been a newspaper of a reprint of the Troy Sentinel, and there just isn’t any hard evidence.

Steve Silverman 00:31:16

And what about the fire, though? You had mentioned to me?

Pamela McColl 00:31:19

Well, the fire yes, the fire in Wisconsin. The fire destroys the so-called manuscript, but somehow a bookcase full of his other manuscripts and his musical manuscripts are saved. So that kind of makes you wonder what that’s all about. But it’s a fun story, and I really subscribe to magical thinking, and I don’t have any problem with fanciful thoughts.

Steve Silverman 00:31:42

Right.

Pamela McColl 00:31:42

I mean, why not? It’s fun. And I mean, even the idea of Clement C. Moore and a sleigh ride and jingle bells and it’s fun, it’s romantic, it’s lovely. And Henry Livingston was a lovely man. He was fun, and he had lots of children, too. A couple of marriages, lots and lots of children, enjoyed Christmas, loved sleighing, and his history is really interesting. The whole Livingston family is really interesting. So I’m okay with like all of these people coming to this poem and being part of its story because they’re all, you know, they’re enjoyable people to meet.

Steve Silverman 00:32:14

Right. After finishing reading the book, it was fascinating to read, but I’m thinking, well, if they found out someday that Livingston wrote it, that’s fine. If they found out, confirmed Moore wrote it, that’s fine also. Either one would be fine because the poem is just fantastic, you know.

Pamela McColl 00:32:14

I agree. And it’s been really fun to find people who love reciting it. I just loved Prince Charles, soon-to-be King Charles, reading it with Maggie Smith and Camilla and Dame Judy Dench. You can find that online. I don’t think you’ve ever seen Prince Charles that happy. And I sort of chuckle to myself and think, what would George Washington have thought of the King of England reading the most famous poem in English language, which was written in New York? It’s kind of fun. That was something that really stood out to me.

Steve Silverman 00:32:58

Now, you’re Canadian, is that correct?

Pamela McColl 00:33:01

Yes, I am.

Steve Silverman 00:33:02

This book is very Americanized. The story is a totally American story. Not knowing the story myself very well, I was really surprised by that.

Pamela McColl 00:33:12

It’s an American story. Yes, it was written in New York and the world loved it and the world continues to love it. I’ve done interviews. I just did an interview yesterday morning in Scotland who heard about this story. And when I did my 2012 smoke-free Santa Claus, it was picked up in China and India. The story people cared.

Steve Silverman 00:33:34

But I’m not even just talking about this poem. It’s everything that I think about when I think about Christmas. Santa Claus landing on the roof with his reindeer, what they’re named, going down the chimney, hanging up the stockings, Christmas trees, Christmas cards, all that is American. And I just kind of, I guess without really, you know, because obviously I’m not Christian, I’m Jewish, although I call myself a pseudo-Jew because I’ve been in the temple since I’m 15 and I don’t really celebrate anything. But I just kind of assumed it was kind of this worldwide thing, that all these things came from different places around the world. And to find out between, say, 1820 and maybe 1840, 1850, that’s when it all came together through various things that were done here in the US. And then the rest of the world is celebrating it that way.

Pamela McColl 00:34:21

Right. Well, I like to say that this poem was centuries in the making. So although it was written in New York, the threads can be drawn back to the Roman Empire. And so you come through Western culture and you come into Great Britain and you have the Twelfth Night celebrations and everything else, and you have the Reformation back in the 15th century, before that, even. And there are links to this poem through all of those cultural references. So although it’s an American poem, it has ties back to the third century. It really does. Like the balls of gold that St. Nicholas throws through the windows. Those are the oranges that we put in our stockings and the coins. That’s where it comes from. And candy canes are like the staff of St. Nicholas. So there’s ties that come through it. And these people who came to America in the early days, they brought with them their cultural backgrounds. Like the people off the Mayflower had come from the court of James I, and, you know, Elizabeth I and James I, and they celebrated Twelfth Night, and they had Shakespeare. So these people came with that legacy. The people who came out with the Mayflower had, as children, had known Christmas Twelfth Night. So they had those memories and they had that, and so they could bring it through with them. And so it comes back into culture in America. And I think that that’s really interesting. But the fact that it was written in New York and the fact that it was written for Christmas Eve, this is the really big piece, because the English Christmas dinner is really the big deal. And I say Washington Irving and Charles Dickens really promoted Christmas dinner. Clement C. Moore gave us Christmas Eve with all the trimming.

Steve Silverman 00:35:56

Sure.

Pamela McColl 00:35:57

Right. And he gave us Santa Claus and reindeer.

Steve Silverman 00:35:59

And that’s a good way of summarizing it. I really like that. So why don’t we move a bit to the illustrations that are in the book. So why don’t you talk about that a little bit?

Pamela McColl 00:36:09

Well, the poem was illustrated by Myron King in the Troy Sentinel for the first time with one image of Santa Claus in a sleigh on a roof. And then in 1841, it was illustrated for the Mirror newspaper with the first image of Santa Claus coming down a chimney by Ingram, which is really fun. And that image is on display at the Albany Institute of Art and History right now in their lobby. They pulled it out for this season. So you can go and see it.

Steve Silverman 00:36:37

I’ve only been there once. I’ve been there in years. I probably should go check it out.

Pamela McColl 00:36:40

It’s in the lobby. It’s really wonderful to see. And that image was also used in 1842 in a newspaper in Albany as the first commercial, because the ad is actually for the Pease department store to sell toys. And then it’s illustrated, as I mentioned, by F.O.C. Darley in 1862, and this is the one that Teddy Roosevelt reads the child. And then it blossoms and it starts to be illustrated by many other people as art techniques and publication and publishing becomes advanced with color. And so you would then have Thomas Nast coming off the Civil War in Harper’s in 1863. You have him developing Santa Claus in a very big way. He loves Santa Claus and he brings him to the North Pole and he develops a world for St. Nicholas and Santa Claus. And he’s very, very popular. Nast is a huge American artist at this point, very, very recognized. And then you get into these wonderful illustrated editions of the book with the luxury Christmas books that come out. You’ve probably seen them with the gold on the front and gilding and that attracts a lot of people to it. As I mentioned, the great, great Jessie Willcox Smith in 1912. You’ve got W. W. Denslow, who is very famous for Wizard of Oz. He illustrates it and it’s a wonderful addition if you can get a copy of it. And then it just blossoms into commercial work as well.

The Wonderful Wizard of Oz by L. Frank Baum and illustrated by W.W. Denslow.
The Wonderful Wizard of Oz by L. Frank Baum and illustrated by W.W. Denslow. A complete scan of the book is available on the Internet Archive.

Steve Silverman 00:38:37

Yeah. The artwork in this book is just incredible and I’m sure there was a lot more that you didn’t include, am I correct?

Pamela McColl 00:38:43

There was. And one of the ones like Ellen Clapsaddle, who I mentioned earlier, I had to take out the Hallmark and her I just didn’t have the room. And I thought I was going down one of these paths that maybe was not quite on focus and I kind of regret that because her story is so amazing and her contribution to Santa Claus being a jolly, happy soul. But the illustrations and in the 19th and 20th century, we have so many additions that it’s hard to choose the best. You’ve got Holly Hobbie, who I think has illustrated it twice, both lovely and it’s really fun to get different editions and see how an artist will come to the work and interpret it. And Thomas Nast really was the first to take him out of the elfin sort of image into a human form and to lengthen his pipe and make some radical changes, actually, to the language of the poem. And it brings up this whole conversation about poetic license for an illustrator. How close do you stay to the text and how far can you go without kind of what are you doing?

A Merry Christmas by Ellen Clapsaddle.
A Merry Christmas by Ellen Clapsaddle. NY Public Library image.

Steve Silverman 00:39:46

People have preconceived notions as to what it should look like. You wouldn’t want to go too far off in a different direction. Too radicals and I think people, it would upset their image of all the things, what Santa looks like, what the reindeer look like, the sleigh, and so on.

Pamela McColl 00:40:03

I think they also want us to remember when they’re illustrating this poem, it’s for children. It really is. And I think some of them are kind of dark, some of the ones I’ve seen that I kind of question that interpretation of the poem because I don’t think it’s dark in any possible way. But people like Disney came to it in a big way. Definitely Mickey Mouse and Winnie the Pooh and all these people. There’s a Piglet Twas the Night Before Christmas. A Mickey. There’s Winnie. They’re all there. And it spurred a lot of other books like The Grinch. Without Twas, the Night Before Christmas, would there be a Grinch? I don’t know. It’s sort of the heart of the whole thing. And it’s been a great legacy.

Steve Silverman 00:40:46

So there are a lot of people out there that collect both the works and the arts. Let’s talk a little bit about that.

Pamela McColl 00:40:52

Sure. Well, I have a small collection, but there are people in America who have a thousand editions. And Nancy Marshall was the big collector. She’s passed away now, but her collection is at the William and Mary University at the Swem Library. And I was really grateful to them for helping me so much on this book. Lots of the images in the book came from their digital collection. And I also think that collecting is a great pastime of many people out there. I’ve met lots of people on the road. I was in Saratoga Springs the other day and I was just walking down the street waiting for a bookstore to open to do some book signings. And a gentleman was setting up a Christmas little house where children come to have their picture taken. And I introduced myself. He said, oh, look what I have. You had a box of vintage Twas. So I had a serendipitous moment with this Santa with his collection. It was really fun. And then I was in Richfield visiting a collector there who had a box of amazing editions of the poem, which I was just intrigued with. So it’s really popular to do. But I would recommend that anybody who’s sort of interested in this topic to go to the magazines and the early newspapers because that’s where you find the really interesting things that are hard, that are just rare.

Steve Silverman 00:42:04

Right.

Pamela McColl 00:42:05

And I think it’s just great to have a great pastime.

Steve Silverman 00:42:05

When something is that popular though, sometimes collecting can get very expensive.

Pamela McColl 00:42:12

It can. Except for the magazines. I can get, like, an edition of a Look magazine or Life for $15, $20. And you can get some wonderful things in there. There’s an edition that has a copy of Clement C. Moore’s daughter’s illustration of the poem which is considered the first illustrated, actually, in 1855. And that you can get for $20.

Steve Silverman 00:42:35

Wow.

Pamela McColl 00:42:35

That’s kind of fun. You can’t get the original. The original is in a vault with the Moore family and I’ve never even seen it. I have not yet met a Moore. I met a Livingston. I haven’t met a Moore. I’d love to meet one.

Steve Silverman 00:42:48

Maybe after they listen to this, someone will respond. Or one of the various things you do for promotion with the book.

Pamela McColl 00:42:55

I think I’ll find one. I do.

Steve Silverman 00:42:57

Yeah.

Historical marker at 225 River Street in Troy, NY commemorating the first publication of Twas the Night Before Christmas by Clement C. Moore.
Historical marker at 225 River Street in Troy, NY commemorating the first publication of Twas the Night Before Christmas by Clement C. Moore. (Author photo.)

Pamela McColl 00:42:58

And they have a lot of the portraits of Clement C. Moore, and his wife, and Charity and I’d love to see them. So maybe one day I’ll meet a Moore. That would be really great.

Steve Silverman 00:43:08

Yes. Considering he had nine children, although you said two didn’t survive. That means a lot of grandchildren. Great grandchildren. The family really expands.

Pamela McColl 00:43:16

Well, when there are Clement Clarke Moores alive named after him. One of them has a Rembrandt collection he loaned to a museum in New York recently.

Steve Silverman 00:43:23

Wow.

Pamela McColl 00:43:23

Because I saw an advertisement for the Clement Clarke Moore Rembrandt collection. I went, I didn’t know he owned Rembrandt. But Clement C. Moore did not, that I know of, but his descendant does.

Steve Silverman 00:43:34

Wow. So who illustrated your first book on Twas the Night?

Pamela McColl 00:43:34

Russians.

Steve Silverman 00:43:34

And how did you choose them?

Pamela McColl 00:43:45

I’d seen their portfolios and I just thought they could do a good job with snow and color. And I wanted that Disneyesque aspect of it because I think that it’s meant to be for children. I wanted it to be child sort of friendly. And I wanted a dog and a cat and I wanted it to be bright and cheerful.

Twas the Night Before Christmas: Edited by Santa Claus for the Benefit of Children of the 21st Century by Clement C. Moore (Author), Pam McColl (Editor), Elena Almazova (Illustrator), Vitaly Shvarov (Illustrator)

Steve Silverman 00:44:05

Right.

Pamela McColl 00:44:06

It is a cheerful poem. Very. And so that’s why I chose them. They’re just very talented.

Steve Silverman 00:44:12

Yeah. I mean, I haven’t seen the book itself. I’ve seen a few, I’ve seen the cover, and in the book you actually have a couple of illustrations from it and it is really incredible. I’m always jealous of people who can do that kind of stuff. One of my former students, I won’t mention a name here, but her mother for years illustrated the Scholastic books for kids and just incredible work. It is a real, true skill. It’s not something everybody can do.

Pamela McColl 00:44:42

The other thing that people don’t appreciate, I think, with book production is the book designer. Because I have a Spanish book designer and you need to have somebody who not only can illustrate but you need this other designer who can pull it together graphically. And I have a great book designer.

Steve Silverman 00:44:59

That’s good. Sometimes getting the wrong one can just ruin the entire project.

Pamela McColl 00:45:04

Yes. And they give you good advice on the cover and everything else. My cover of my book is I’m really proud of it. It took me a long time to figure it out because I struggled with the N. C. Wyeth image because it’s a hot piece of art. A lot of his work was stolen, which is really unfortunate. And I didn’t know if I wanted to put that on the cover just because it has a notorious sort of aspect to it. Although he’s one of my very favorite artists. And so I picked Helen Chamberlin, who is very, very unknown and I just thought the image was wonderful and very vintage and very endearing. And on the back, I put Louis Prang because Louis Prang democratized art in America. He’s the one that enabled the printing of reproductions so people could put them in their homes, so people who couldn’t afford original works of art, could afford the Prang reproductions, and it changed interior design, and it really brought art into the home of Americans. And so I really wanted to applaud him for that.

Steve Silverman 00:45:55

Yeah, it’s just amazing to look at. It also makes me realize how far printing has come technology-wise. I mean, these are just spectacular. The reproduction is just incredible.

Pamela McColl 00:46:07

Yes. When you think of, like, F.O.C. Darley, I mean, they were hand tinting, hand doing, hand coloring. Right.

Steve Silverman 00:46:15

Just amazing.

Pamela McColl 00:46:16

It is amazing. And it’s not that long ago. It just isn’t. It’s 200 years. This is not that long ago. Which is really probably the most amazing part of this. Just not that long ago. And look how much we’ve changed. And yet the poem still is loved by everybody. I was reading it yesterday to some preschoolers. They were two to four, two years to four years of age, and I wondered if it would capture their attention. And they had just been given a set of jingle bells by the curator of the museum, and they were busy with their jingle bells. I thought, uh oh, we’ve got a distraction here. They all listened.

Steve Silverman 00:46:50

Wow.

Pamela McColl 00:46:50

And I went, okay, this is great. And the last thing I think that’s really important to say is that the most enthusiastic fan of my book has been a 70-year-old gentleman who read it as a child and wants to read it to his grandchildren. And if this book reaches that audience, then we can be secure that the poem will have a future, because those children will read it and have it read to them by someone you know they love. And so the nostalgia and the memory of it with Christmas will survive.

Steve Silverman 00:47:20

Right.

Pamela McColl 00:47:20

So to me, every time a grandfather buys it, I’m so happy. It’s so good for the poem.

Steve Silverman 00:47:27

I mean, just a few days after I got it, I was visiting a friend of mine. She was a former art teacher at our school, and she just was like, wow. She was going to get a copy of it for her husband. But just the other day, it was Thanksgiving here, and my sister-in-law was over. She says, oh, I read that to my daughter every year. I had no clue. And then I’m getting physical therapy yesterday, and she said, oh, yeah, I had a copy of the book, and I read it to my children every year. So it’s just everywhere. It’s just so appreciated by people.

Pamela McColl 00:47:56

It is. And I was in Plymouth speaking at the Mayflower Society, and on Thanksgiving, I have to say this. I had this opinion that Americans ate their dinner, put their dishes in the dishwasher, and put up their Christmas lights. Because the next day, when I started traveling on this 21-day tour I’m doing, people had wreaths up and lights up and balloons up and like, inflatable reindeer. And not just one wreath, like some of their houses they had wreaths in every window. And I went, oh, this is so great that people here embrace Christmas in such a big way and we’re still in November. It’s such an important poem and such an important holiday. But some people live in Christmas two months of the year.

Steve Silverman 00:48:38

Two months? You drive around, there are people who leave up their ornaments and their decorations all year.

Pamela McColl 00:48:43

Because it’s positive, it’s happy, it’s inclusive and it’s joy and it’s children and it’s memories, and it’s good. And it’s such a delight to work on something that’s so positive. I’ve been working for 21 days. I’ve been on the road. I’ve been in 21 hotel rooms.

Steve Silverman 00:49:01

Wow.

Pamela McColl 00:49:02

And it’s been quite something in my rental car. And I keep sending back pictures to Instagram and to Facebook and everything else to my friends and family, and everybody keeps saying to me, you look like you’re having the time of your life. You’re having so much fun. It must be just great. I go, It is. It’s wonderful. But I’m mostly working really hard here. It’s because it’s Christmas and Twas, they just think she’s just on some joyride. And it is. But it’s been wonderful in every aspect, but it’s really funny.

Steve Silverman 00:49:36

Now, I’m assuming you’re in town for the Victorian Stroll in Troy. Is that correct?

Pamela McColl 00:49:41

I am here for tonight for the Hart-Cluett.

Steve Silverman 00:49:42

Oh, yeah. Which is the museum of Kathy Sheehan, who was on a few months ago. She’s the historian for it.

Pamela McColl 00:49:50

I’m there at their opening night, and I’m signing books at the Market Block Books.

Steve Silverman 00:49:54

Sure. Which is right down the street.

Pamela McColl 00:49:55

Right.

Steve Silverman 00:49:56

And I’ve said this before in the podcast. Troy is a beautiful city, at least the portion around the museum, that whole kind of downtown section. The architecture is just incredible.

Pamela McColl 00:50:05

I really like Troy. I’ve been here three times. I really love it. I think it’s a great little town, and it has some really wonderful things. The church full of different glass is worth seeing. And the museums are great, and I’ve always loved being here.

Steve Silverman 00:50:18

Yes, it’s a beautiful, beautiful city. Anyway, I guess we should kind of bring this to a close. I just want to thank you for being on the podcast. The book, again, is called Twas the Night, The Art and History of the Classic Christmas Poem. So Pamela, I just again want to thank you for being on the podcast. And after you sign off, what I’ll do is I’ll tack on some old audio of a reciting of the poem. But in the meantime,

Pamela McColl and Steve Silverman 00:50:18

Happy Christmas to All, and To All a Good Night!

Happy Christmas to all and to all a good night. From the 1849 publication St. Nicholas
by Clement C. Moore with original cuts, designed and engraved by Boyd.
From the 1849 publication St. Nicholas
by Clement C. Moore with original cuts, designed and engraved by Boyd. Hathi Trust Digital Library.

The audio recording of A Visit from St. Nicholas that was played at the end of the podcast was read by Cedric Adams with Freddie Bradish on organ.

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pamela mccoll

Wonderful conversation – thank you.

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