A Christmas Back Story

By Chelle Cordero

November 15, 2016 5 min read

Every holiday season, families gather to listen to stories of cheer and magic. The same stories are retold year after year and carried from generation to generation. Did you ever wonder how the myriad Christmastime ditties, poems and stories came to capture youthful imaginations?

Charles Dickens' own unsettling childhood is thought to have had a huge impact on his tales. In "A Christmas Carol," Ebenezer Scrooge's transformation from a bitter and miserly old man to a generous and compassionate gentleman supposedly reflects Dickens' feelings about his own father. His father, John Dickens, was thrown into debtors' prison for three months, which forced young Charles to leave school, pawn his treasured books and take a job in a boot-polish factory. Even after his father was released, Charles had to remain at the factory to help his family recover.

He loved his father, yet, at the same time, he also resented him for the upheaval in his previously comfortable life, the loss of a formal education and the humiliation he felt working at the factory, where the other workers referred to him as the "little gentleman." Touched by the plight of the lower working class, Charles Dickens incorporated the poverty-stricken neighborhoods of London into "A Christmas Carol" and many other tales he wrote.

The famous poem "A Visit From St. Nicholas" (more commonly known as "'Twas the Night Before Christmas") was most likely written by Clement Clarke Moore, a loving father who was inspired by a snowy winter day, a sleigh ride and a local handyman's delivering supplies. Although the poem was published in a Troy, New York, newspaper in 1832, the author at that time remained anonymous. There were as many as a dozen speculations as to who wrote this famous poem; it was several years until Moore finally stepped forward to claim authorship and cited a Dutch handyman as his inspiration.

Allegedly, Moore wrote the poem just to share with his wife and children one Christmas Eve, but a visitor to their home later found the poem and submitted it to the town's newspaper anonymously, where it was printed the following year. Moore was a scholar and originally didn't want his name associated with the lighthearted fare. But when the poem earned such popularity, he decided to claim it.

Alternatively, some scholars believe the poem was written by Henry Livingston Jr., a farmer and former military officer from Poughkeepsie, New York. Livingston was deceased when the poem was first published. The Livingston family discovered the publication 20 years later and claimed the poem as their father's.

The inspiration for "The Little Match Girl," by Hans Christian Andersen, is heartbreaking. In late autumn, on a Denmark street, the author came across a little girl trying to sell matches to make money to bring home to her father. Although it was getting cold, she was scared to go home, so Andersen, who was readying to leave on a short business trip, gave her money and promised to bring a Christmas gift when he returned. Grateful, she also promised him a gift.

Andersen returned from his trip with a warm coat for the little girl and found that she froze to death one cold winter night while selling her matches. Devastated by the loss of the young child, Andersen wrote a story for her. It had a bittersweet ending: Although the little girl still dies, her late, kind grandmother carries her off to heaven, and they spend eternity together. The gentle ending was his gift to her.

"The Gift of the Magi," by O. Henry (real name William Sydney Porter), is a morality story about love and sacrifice. An impoverished couple wants to get Christmas presents for each other. The young woman sells her hair to buy a chain for her beau's treasured watch, and he sells his watch to buy combs for her long hair. The irony is symbolic: She gave away her beauty, and he gave away all of his time. They each gave away their biggest treasures -- all in the name of true, selfless love.

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