The word “iconic” is thrown around fairly freely at times, but the Christmas poem “A Visit from Saint Nicholas” certainly appreciates the title.
In Springfield, so is Johnson’s Bookstore, where over a century has served literature and forged memories that live to this day.
These two disparate but interconnected worlds come together this week when Pamela McColl, a Vancouver, British Columbia native who has written a book based on Clement Clarke Moore’s poem, arrives in Springfield for a book signing at the Springfield Museums on Friday from 11:00 am: 00 to 20:00 visited 14h
The book is entitled Twas the Night: The Art and History of the Classic Christmas Poem.
On Wednesday, McColl met with Clifton “Chip” Johnson, a fourth-generation member of a family whose bookstore was a downtown Main Street meeting place for more than 100 years. Their shared appreciation of history and literature formed an immediate bond as McColl explained why Moore’s poem, written in 1823 and soon to be 200 years old, means so much to her – and to millions of people around the world.
Written at a time when literature, poetry and art were still considered the domain of European elites, the poem is, among many characteristics, a very American creation.
“It is the most celebrated, recited, published, illustrated and collected poem in the history of the English language,” said McColl. She has spent a decade compiling information about the work’s history, the man who wrote it and the times in which he lived.
“It was first published in the Troy (New York) Sentinel on December 23, 1823 and was an instant hit,” she explained. “It was recited by both sides during the Civil War, each side claiming Santa Claus as its own, and it grew during the Golden Age of Illustration from the 1880s to the 1920s.”
Above all, McColl said, the poem speaks to the kindness of people.
“(Cartoonist) Thomas Nast brought the sassy and the nice to Christmas. Clement C. Moore skipped it,” says the 64-year-old author, who describes her passion as her retirement project. “There is no fear associated with the poem. It’s a spiritual message, but it’s also a secular one, and it speaks of hope,” she said.
The poem was written in New York at a time when the legend of St. Nick was in full swing and modern Santa Claus mysticism was taking shape. But, says McColl, the story really begins in the third century AD with Saint Nicholas, a Christian bishop in the Roman Empire who was known for his generosity.
For Johnson, visiting McColl was an opportunity to refresh special memories of the family bookstore, which opened in 1893 and has welcomed many famous people including Springfield native Theodor Seuss Geisel, the legendary Dr. Seuss, who carried the store’s guest book in 1937. Copies of the guest book survive, but the original, maintained for decades, is gone.
“Someone has it,” said Johnson, now 71, “but we don’t know who.”
What hasn’t gone away are special memories of Christmas, which Johnson’s Bookstore treated with tradition and grandeur. Countless adults across western Massachusetts still remember the bookstore Santa, who would sit in a large, green chair and hand out valuable gold coins to young children sitting on his lap.
“They weren’t real gold. They were brass. I can’t imagine how much money my family spent on these coins,” said Johnson, who still keeps some of the coins.
“We also had two high-quality Santa suits. Our Santas were retired elderly gentlemen who had to learn a screenplay. They were also trained to look at the parents when the child asked for a Christmas present,” he recalled. “Our Santa Claus would tell the child that you may not necessarily get exactly what you want, but you will get something really nice – unless the parents nodded that the child would get it.”
McColl’s interest in Johnson’s Bookstore is understandable given her interest in finding and collecting older manuscripts. Clement Moore’s death in 1863 came less than 25 years after photography’s infancy, and McColl discovered the only known photograph of the poet, taken in the 1850s, in the Columbia University archives.
She is as fascinated by Moore’s life as she is by his famous work, originally titled A Visit From St. Nicholas. Born into one of America’s wealthiest families, Moore “never made a dime on the poem,” McColl said.
But he spoke several languages, played several musical instruments, introduced opera to New York, and was the son of the bishop who gave his last rites to Founding Father Alexander Hamilton.
“The story of how (Moore) wrote the poem is that he went to get a turkey and was struck by the magic of the season. He wrote it (right away) and went home to tell his kids,” McColl said.
Did it really happen? Nobody can really say for sure.
“His home in Chelsea (a Manhattan neighborhood where the Moores owned a lot of property) was demolished and dumped in the Hudson River. There is no Clement C. Moore museum, no statue, and I find that really unfortunate,” McColl said. “There are two desks that claim he wrote the poem, but the story says nothing about desks.”
Whether or not this story is true, Moore is widely credited as the author, but even that has been debated. The family of Henry B. Livingston, who died in 1828, has claimed it was his work. However, they did not make their claim public until around 1900.
The poem was initially published anonymously, so the Livingstons were only aware of Moore’s role years after it was written. McColl sees no hard evidence disproving Moore as an author. Most literary historians support his case.
Memories of Johnson’s Bookstore returned to the news earlier this year when Chip’s father, Charles Johnson, died at the age of 93. He recalls his family being approached when Eastfield Mall was first conceived in the 1950s and opened in 1967 to make Johnson’s an anchor store.
Johnson said his father devoted himself to downtown, and for years the store thrived. Then came malls and the birth of online service, and “in the 1980s and 1990s downtown wasn’t retail anymore,” Johnson said. On January 5, 1998, the store closed for good.
According to McColl, independent bookstores like Johnson’s could make a comeback. Whether that happens or not, she said interest in the famous poem will never wane.
“I spoke at the Mark Twain House in Hartford and was amazed at how many people came with copies of the poem. They had kept it since childhood and read it to their children and grandchildren,” she said. “By the end of the 19th century, Christmas customs had spread in this country, and so had this poem. It is benevolent and kind and is loved to this day.”