Some versions of “Account of a Visit from St. Nicholas” charm with nostalgic familiarity; some charm with imaginative typographical errors; some charm by being just the most whacked-out version imaginable. The poem reprinted in Historic Tales of Olden Time is the latter. Whole sections are dropped (no reindeer names!); lines that aren’t dropped are strangely transformed. The copy of Historic Tales digitized as part of the Sabin database has double exclamation marks in the margin of the poem, indicating that an earlier reader was as floored by the version as we are.

How did the poem get so altered? Probably the vagaries of memory. By 1833, the poem had been reprinted dozens of times—mostly in newspapers, in December—but a copy may not have been at hand when John F. Watson decided to include it in his book. Memory does, after all, have its limits. Nevertheless, it’s an entertaining version of a delightful poem.
Not quite “A Visit from St. Nicholas” (from Historic Tales of Olden Time, Concerning the Early Settlement and Progress of Philadelphia and Pennsylvania, by John F. Watson; Philadelphia: E. Littell and Thomas Holden, 1833; pp. 156-157)

The “Belsh Nichel” and St. Nicholas has been a time of Christmas amusement from time immemorial among us; brought in, it is supposed, among the sportive frolics of the Germans. It is the same also observed in New York under the Dutch name of St. Claes. “Belsh Nichel,” in high German, expresses “Nicholas in his fur” or sheep-skin clothing. He is always supposed to bring good things at night to good children, and a rod for those who are bad. Every father in his turn remembers the excitements of his youth in Belsh-nichel and Christ-kinkle nights, and his amusement also when a father, at seeing how his own children expressed their feelings on their expectations of gifts from the mysterious visiter! The following fine poetry upon the subject must gratify the reader:

It was the night before Christmas, when all through the house

Not a creature was stirring, not even a mouse;

When what in the air, to my eyes should appear,

But a miniature sleigh and eight tiny reindeer;

With a little old driver so lively and quick,

I knew in a moment, it must be Saint Nick!

Soon, on to the house top, his coursers, they flew,

With the sleigh full of toys and Saint Nicholas too;

As I roll’d on my bed and was turning around,

Down the chimney Saint 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;

The stump of a pipe he held fast 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.

p. 157

He spoke not a word, but went straight to his work:

Soon 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;

And I heard him exclaim, ere he drove out of sight,

“Happy Christmas to all, and to all a good night.”

Copyright 1999-2024, Pat Pflieger
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